As Covid began its roller-coaster ride of infection in early 2020, causing panic, sickness, and death, much of the art world came to a halt.
“I read one article after another about artists and what they lost during the epidemic,” says Jay Critchley, sitting at an outdoor table in his back yard on a sunny May afternoon and chatting about his show at AMP Gallery, “Viral Warming,” opening on Friday. “For me, I just feel fortunate living in Provincetown with the means to create art and survive. That’s what makes this place so special and privileged.”
Critchley washed ashore here 40-odd years ago, doing social work and working in public health until he came out as gay and as an artist. He has been a nonstop creative force ever since. His art is visual, conceptual, subversive, and theatrical — he has even turned his own identity into a performance piece, registering himself as a corporation.
The Provincetown Community Compact, which he founded, holds the annual fund-raising Swim for Life to support local charities, dune shacks, and artist residencies, but like all of Critchley’s projects, from covering a Truro motel with sand to wearing a dress made of tampon applicators, the Compact itself is a kind of aesthetic commentary.
He considers himself an environmental activist, and most of his artwork is anti-corporate satire with an aim of speaking truth to power and making ecological sense of our lives.
Critchley sees a pandemic such as Covid as indicative of the environmental havoc we have inflicted for centuries. “Let’s back up a minute,” Critchley says. “I’ve already been through a pandemic — the AIDS pandemic. How many people have died of AIDS? Around 50 million. How many have died of Covid? Three million. This virus is just another iteration of pandemics. There are other, related pandemics going on: climate change, social injustice, racial injustice, economic injustice. We’ve been living with them all along. It’s all connected.”
Critchley is a collector, and the objects he collects are fetishes, of a sort, of his art and activism. He collects sand from beaches all over the world. And he has also collected advertising banners, the kind that are hung across Commercial Street, hawking events.
In collecting them, Critchley says, “I certainly thought it would be an art project, but I had no idea what.”
He had been doing research on the history of the Americas as part of Provincetown 400 — his “Moo Moo World” project — and saw that “pandemics were so defining of the occupation and invasion of the Americas, with cows and horses and pigs.” That correlated to current environmental crises. “Deforesting the Amazon, the palm oil trees in Malaysia — everything is disrupting the ecosystem. Animals are being pushed into close contact.” The result: pandemics.
“That’s kind of the background of this project,” he says. “What are the banners used for? They herald events. They’re disposable objects. They’re very commercial on Commercial Street. They have a provenance. What are we promoting? What could we promote?”
For his “Viral Warming” show, Critchley painted the names of viruses over the ads on the banners. “I usually don’t do two-dimensional work,” he says. “It was me and a paint brush and spray can. Because of Covid, I was working on my own. I used to make a lot of signs when I was younger. Going back to making letters was kind of fun.”
That resourcefulness is Critchley’s trademark. He took some solar-powered lamps he was going to use on a communal project at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall that was about to be torn down — a project halted by Covid — and turned them into a short film, Provincetown 2020 — 36 Solar Lights, which will be screened at the upcoming
Provincetown Film Festival. In it, he bikes around town at night with the lights, illuminating the ghostly pandemic landscape.
It’s all part of a process. “The banners are just the beginning of a project,” Critchley says. “It could be a parade of banners. I could install them in a space for performative actions and involve other artists. It could be a stage set, or whatever. That’s the way I look at my life and work: once something is created, you move on to the next thing.”
Spread the Word
The event: “Democracy of the Land: Viral Warming,” an exhibit of banners by Jay Critchley
The time: Friday, May 28 through June 23
The place: AMP: Art Market Provincetown, 432 Commercial St.
The cost: Free