New York

Ramak Fazel

The story of “49 State Capitols,” Milan-based photographer Ramak Fazel’s first exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, begins with a suggestion from his mother. Fazel’s childhood stamp collection was stored in the attic of her home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, she reminded him while he was there visiting in 2006—why not do something with it? He retrieved the collection and, struck by a page of American state flag stamps, conceived of the odyssey that would take him 17,345 miles over seventy-eight days in the summer and fall of that year.

Born in Iran but raised in the Midwest, Fazel had turned to philately to educate himself about his adopted country; at thirty he set off to see it, stamps in hand. He purchased a used camper and plotted a course to forty-nine of the nation’s capitol buildings (he ran out of money before he reached Alaska). The show included ephemera from the trip, a color photograph taken at each site, and oversize postcards that he prepared in each city, adorned with an assortment of his postal stock, and mailed to himself (care of general delivery) at his next destination. Interior and exterior shots of the buildings, some studiously composed and others more candid, go some way toward humanizing the cold ostentation of civic architecture by depicting, for example, a secretary stacking messages on the governor’s spit-shined desk in Boise, Idaho, and an electrician repairing a hallway light in Tallahassee, Florida. Fazel’s postcards stage kindred injections of personality into the functionalism of the postal service. Stamps dating from as early as the 1890s are arrayed in harlequin flurries, affixed singly and in sheets, upside down and overlapping, at random and in calligrams. The dispatches are often tied thematically to the history of the state from which they were mailed, which the artist researched in local libraries; the card from Springfield, Missouri, bears Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer seals; the one from Boston, stamps honoring Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, John Harvard, and various Kennedys. (At points the references discomfit: A missive sent from New York contains two towers of postage, one stabbed by an aviation stamp, with “fire pumper,” ambulance, and public hospital stamps surrounding.)

What links the photographs to the postcards, and wherein lies the possible bite of “49 State Capitols,” is the self-reflexivity of Fazel’s subject and medium. Beyond their practical uses, capitol buildings and postage stamps purport, in ways explicit and furtive, to body forth the spirit of state and country. This imperative surfaces here as, at best, beside the point; more often it’s a total washout. When people appear in the photos at all, they tend to be employees, schoolchildren, and older tourists, all looking terrifically bored, and the edifices are frequently pictured from a distance, hemmed by parking lots or transected by power lines. Many of the stamps seem likewise irrelevant, either in the overly general—flowers, Christmas—or overly targeted—alcoholism (“You can beat it!”), osteopathic medicine—selections of the Postmaster General.

Such anodyne representations stand in unsettling contrast to Fazel’s experience partway through his trip. On a flight from Sacramento to Honolulu, he described his undertaking to a fellow passenger. She reported him as suspicious, and in the following weeks he was not only prohibited from entering certain state capitol buildings but detained and Mirandized, questioned in fifteen states, and handcuffed in two. How pitiful it is that such incidents, rather than the considered study of national self-projection tacit in the work, may have best achieved his intention: “I wanted to learn about America.”

Lisa Turvey