On a long-distance flight from Hamburg to Paris, then onward to New York, Israeli artist Yuval Pudik was addressing postcards. These postcards, however, were not to friends or relatives, but strangers—people he knew of, was acquainted with, or admired from afar.
Pudik didn’t purchase the postcards from a gift shop or tourist destination, and they possessed none of the hallmarks of travel. Instead of writing a note in the space to the left of the recipient’s address, Pudik created a collage; and, where an image of, say, the Eiffel Tower should appear, the postcards remained completely blank, save for a few minuscule letters scrawled along one edge in pen reading @verbal_gains.
The handle, in stark contrast to the analog mode of communication it amended, and certainly small enough to be easily overlooked, served as the only authorial mark indicating from whom and for what purpose the postcards were being sent. And while the handle led to an Instagram account with no name, no information, and no posts, it had nearly four thousand followers and counting.
Pudik, a queer multimedia artist from rural Israel, sought to start a conversation. He wanted to share something of himself: an aesthetic, an idea, a nod towards mutual interests or mutual understanding—a veritable studio visit without the studio or the visit. The postcards foregrounded his distinct visual lexicon of hyper-realistic charcoal drawings, found imagery and vintage gay porn, highlighter yellow and bright red, and circular cut outs or other hard-edged graphic motifs.
In so doing, they alluded to the various subjects of his work: identity, race, history, and sexuality, and reflected his archival tendency to amass materials that attest to personal experiences or cultural phenomena. Innately characterized by juxtaposition, his practice, and now the postcards, formulate alternate narratives and commentaries, breaking open the expected in the creation of something new.
This endeavor to forge connection through anonymity consequently serves as a performative outgrowth of his established practice.
In early 2022, Pudik relocated from Los Angeles to New York. Relegated to the kitchen table of his new Chelsea apartment, having left behind his spacious Silver Lake home and studio, Pudik compiled a short mailing list of eight individuals, including Stuart Comer, Helen Molesworth, Diana Nawi, and Lucas Zwirner, to whom he would send postcards on a weekly, if not daily basis.
From March to September, the mailing list grew, and in its final stages included nearly fifty people — Donna De Salvo (Dia Art Foundation), Claire Gilman (The Drawing Center), and Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine), Hendrik Folkerts (Moderna Museet), and Hugo Vitrani (Palais de Tokyo), among others — all of whom are curators, gallerists, writers, or fellow artists. Anonymity allowed the postcards—which unfolded durationally in the creation of a sort of montaged exhibition—to arrive at the recipients’ doors free of associations.
Today, one is more likely to receive a DM from a stranger than a postcard from a friend. Verbal Gains, however, treads the line between these two polarized modes of communication: using a formally analog and nostalgic vehicle to connect with individuals most frequently encountered by Pudik on social media. So, while Pudik’s mailing list included acquaintances, former colleagues, and a few friends, it was by and large comprised of people best characterized as strangers.
It begs the question: If our DMs are open, why shouldn’t our mailboxes be?
Mathias Skaset, co-curator of The Queer Gaze at KODE in Norway, was one such stranger who welcomed Pudik’s mysterious intrusion. Having had no prior contact with or knowledge of Pudik, Skaset nevertheless found the postcards beautiful, fascinating, and perhaps even a little vexing.
“As the postcards kept on coming, the confusion and curiosity grew even stronger, and by the end I was even a little freaked out,” Skaset told ARTnews. “Not because I found it scary, only because I was dying to know what it was all about.”
To figure out who they were from, Skaset posted images of the postcards on Instagram, to see if they looked familiar to anyone else. They didn’t, and it was only when Pudik’s final postcard arrived featuring a QR code for his website that his identity was finally revealed. All recipients received this final postcard, and one that preceded it saying: “The End.” But, for recipients like Skaset who seem to have found both pleasure and joy in this unconventional exchange, it might only be the beginning.
When asked if he thought this conversation would continue in another capacity, Skaset said, “I’d love to meet up with Pudik if I’m ever in New York, to get to know him, learn more about his art and hear more about his thoughts and intentions going into the project. The postcards have definitely started a conversation that I’m curious to continue in the future.”
There is, of course, a precedent for mail qua art sent en masse, and a reason for the association of this practice with queer culture. As homosexuality necessitated anonymity, disguise, and covert interactions for so long, the postal service offered not exactly a place of refuge, but certainly one of free(er) exchange. That is, as the full force of the Comstock Laws, which prohibited using the U.S. Postal Service to send “articles of immoral use,” waned in the United States. One’s privacy maintained, the post was a means by which to communicate genuinely, intimately, and perhaps even explicitly.
Though not operating under the strictures of generations past, Pudik’s project exists within this lineage and that of the international mail art movement. From Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School, and Jerry Dreva’s Les Petites Bon-Bons in Milwaukee, to Wallace Berman’s Semina in Los Angeles, and Matthew Higgs’ Imprint 93 in Britain, those who capitalized on the accessibility and reach of this governmental agency created tight knit local networks that ultimately extended far beyond their geographic spheres to an international audience.
Decades later, the same can be said of Pudik’s Verbal Gains. Jay Ezra Nayssan, founder of Del Vaz Projects in Los Angeles, who received 25 postcards over the course of the project, says that Pudik’s collages occasionally featured imagery that was screenshot from his “close friends” stories on Instagram. Pudik admits that incorporating such personal references and imagery from the online profiles of his recipients “risked coming across as creepy,” and yet Nayssan told ARTnews, “I enjoyed knowing that whoever was sending [the postcards] was someone who was in my close friends circle.”
Instead of arousing suspicion, the postcards proved both intriguing and exciting, as Nayssan enjoyed them for their “pop culture references and their gay imagery but also for their intricate construction—cut outs, collages, pen ink drawings” and his favorite: “the tear aways.” Ultimately, since Pudik and Nayssan had met previously, this material is what gave Pudik away and allowed Nayssan to correctly identify the work before the final QR postcard arrived. That being said, the project seems to have forged new points of connection, as Nayssan said the postcards made “reference to what me and Yuval have in common,” such as “spending time in Paris [and] our Jewish background.”
Correspondences such as these, between Pudik and the pseudo-strangers he reached out to seem to have recurred throughout the mailing list.
Take David Breslin, co-curator of the 2022 Whitney Biennial and a recipient of approximately 70 postcards, according to Pudik. Strictly speaking, Pudik and Breslin are not strangers, as they interacted on multiple occasions over the duration of the biennial, in which Pudik served as one of the performers assembling and disassembling Sutter’s Mill (2000) by Jason Rhoades. While one might assume that Breslin, who was unavailable to comment due to his transition to the Met, would recognize Pudik on the street, there’s no reason to believe he would be able to identify Pudik’s artwork, not having been introduced in this capacity. Perhaps now that Breslin is tagged, alongside the other recipients, in Pudik’s Instagram post revealing the project he will look at the postcards anew—that is, if they ever found their way from the Whitney’s mailroom to his desk.
As for me, I was not included on Pudik’s mailing list, but having had a studio visit with him in Los Angeles back in 2018, I became suspicious when an anonymous postcard posted on someone’s Instagram story this summer possessed all the markings of his work. When asked about it (over DM) at the time, he denied any association, and I didn’t persist.
But months later at his new studio as an artist-in-residence of Silver Art Projects, this “ritual that served as a creative landing pad in New York” had finally come to an end and, it seems, accomplished precisely what it set out to do: garner some measure of verbal gains.