An Extraction Epidemic

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by Steve Desroches

Top Image: Jay Critchley Photo: Mike-Syers.

In 2003 Jay Critchley’s work was all about another viral outbreak: SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, which tested the world’s ability to halt a potential pandemic. Within a year of the first outbreak in Foshan, China, the World Health Organization declared SARS contained, but Newsweek ran a cover story with the title “What You Need to Know: The New Age of Epidemics” with a photo of a masked women with alarmed eyes.  It wasn’t prophecy, but rather science that gave this clarion call. And part of that call to action was the tie between increasingly deadly epidemics and environmental degradation. As the world still struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, headlines around the globe repeated the warning, with The Guardian this week stating scientists had said, “World leaders ignoring role of destruction of nature is causing pandemics.” Almost 20 years ago Critchley utilized this scientific discovery in his art, manipulating the magazine cover image to say CARS, instead of SARS, impishly illustrating it’s human behavior in the extraction of fossil fuels in particular that’s killing us.

“To me the issue was always fossil fuels,” says Critchley. “All the way back to my sand cars, to my earliest work, its been about our continued extraction and exploitation of the Earth, because let’s face it, [the pandemic] is an environmental crisis.”

As a conceptual artist Critchley’s career can seem wild and unruly, as he works in a variety of mediums, including performance, in ostensibly unrelated ideas. But backing up and looking at his body of work, the narrative threads are clearly there, and most definitely displayed in his current show at Art Market Provincetown (AMP). Democracy of the Land: Viral Warming continues his exploration of the self-inflicted wounds humanity suffers for our collective strip-mining of the planet. While certainly individual causes of disease epidemics are complicated, the unprecedented size of the world’s population mixed with the destruction of habitats is exposing us to previously contained pathogens. It’s as if it needs to be shouted from the rooftops, and in artistic form that’s what Critchley is doing.

The focal point of the exhibition are large recycled banners Critchley has collected. They once hung over Commercial Street advertising drag shows, plays, and special events. Now they blare a message of some of the greatest challenges to humanity over the past century: ZIKA, Ebola, HIV, malaria, and of course SARS and its deadlier cousin COVID-19. As Critchley walks around the show, which he hung with gallery director Debbie Nadolney, the banners present as contemporary updates of medieval tapestries. With the name of each epidemic in white over newsprint the background is a flitting image of the trappings of modern life in what are really two-dimensional paintings, a rare foray for Critchley. Like the textiles that once hung in castles, these banners also tell the stories of trials and tribulations.  The centerpiece is The Tree of Rife, painted on an old photo opportunity backdrop advertising Bud Light, Whole Foods, 99.9 FM Cape Cod’s Fresh Mix, and Provincetown itself. Lined along the back are plastic containers of Nature’s Promise, Stop and Shop’s organic offerings of salads and produce, that ironically, despite the name, are put in wasteful packaging made out of petroleum products. But in each package is a collection of things you might find on the wrack line of Herring Cove Beach, be it small horseshoe crab shells or plastic tampon applicators. It’s a subtle jab at the effects of trickster marketing when the public and its concerns are treated as a consumer and a market, rather than as a citizen and a movement. You’ve been fooled into thinking more consumption is good because it’s “natural” or has a rainbow flag slapped on it.  The amalgamation of the work is a shift away from what Critchely had planned on doing in 2020, a year that was supposed to be about the events of 1620, when really it should be about what life was like here in 1619.

“It is ironic that we’re hit with a plague in 2020, the year when the town was supposed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims,” says Critchley. “The start of a European invasion of North America and the genocide of Native Americans also included plagues. There’s something very biblical about it.”

Also included in the exhibition are humorous collages of vintage Captain Kangaroo children’s puzzles over pages of recent issues of The New York Times, acting as little jabs from the periphery of the show. Collectively, the show is classic Critchley. Provocative as it is thoughtful. Be it through humor or technique, the precision is encircled by loose ends that leave each work, and the show in general, to connect to what comes next, in his career and in our ongoing struggle to find our way to combat “genocidal capitalism” and the Jonestownian nature of a culture mainlining short-term profits over long-term sustainability.

“We’re so removed from the visceral aspects of life,” says Critchley. “We’re out of touch with the darkness of our own mortality. We’re completely out of touch with mortality. And now we’re coming out of this pandemic, which challenged so much of how we think and act. So now what?”

Jay Critchley’s Democracy of the Land: Viral Warming is on view at AMP, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown, through June 23. For more information call 646.298.9258 or visit artmarketprovinctown.com.

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