Now Hiring: Operations and Marketing Manager

OnlineJun 25, 2024

Jay Critchley Provocatively Pairs Patriotism with Queerness at SPOKE Gallery

The Provincetown-based artist’s modest solo exhibition features three decades’ worth of activism-centered work from the height of the AIDS epidemic to the present.

Review by Jackson Davidow

A box of Old Glory condoms and a Latex is for Lovers campaign pin.

A box of Old Glory Condom Corporation condoms beside a pin for the company’s campaign Latex is for Lovers from the early 1990s.

In 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, artist and activist Jay Critchley held a press conference to publicize the Old Glory Condom Corporation during the run of “Trouble in Paradise,” a group exhibition about the brokenness of democracy which was on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center. With a logo that depicted the American flag as a condom, as if waving in the wind, and a motto proclaiming “worn with pride country-wide,” the project promoted safer sex by insisting that prophylactic usage was an act of patriotism. Referencing the “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech delivered by founding father Patrick Henry on the eve of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the Old Glory Condom Corporation brought into focus contemporaneous wars that were raging across the country: the war on political art, the war on flag desecration, and the war on queer people and people living with HIV/AIDS. As part of the project, Critchley also wrote a letter to the warmonger President George H. W. Bush to offer some sample products and invite him to collaborate on a public/private partnership.

An installation view. A white wall with the Old Glory Condom Corp logo sits behind three statues.

Installation view, “Trouble in Paradise,” MIT List Visual Arts Center, 1989. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Both provocative and earnest, this enterprise, which actually produced and distributed condoms, was officially launched on Flag Day, or June 14, the following year. Because the US Trademark Office took issue with the “immoral” logo, the project created a media storm with a front-page story in The Washington Post, an article in Newsweek, and a CNN clip where Jesse Helms, ringleader of the culture wars, condemned the company on the Senate Floor, unwittingly raising awareness about safer sex for the American public. After a three-year legal dispute, the trademark was ultimately granted.

A photo of The Washington Post Front Page. The headline reads "Drawing the Line on Patriotic Activity...Condom Logo Tests Patriotic Appeal".

Newspaper clipping of The Washington Post’s article about Old Glory Condom Corporation’s logo in 1992.

A marketing photograph for the Old Glory Condom Corporation appears in “Democracy of the Land: Patriotism,” Critchley’s modest solo exhibition of work since the late 1980s at SPOKE Gallery in South Boston. It revisits a handful of the Provincetown-based artist’s projects and community initiatives that have been preoccupied with constructs of democracy in the age of pandemics, bigotry, and environmental destruction. Made in collaboration with Lydia Eccles, his work Blessed Virgin Rubber Goddess—Immaculate Protection (1994–present) takes the form of two votive candles honoring the Virgin Mary. By reinterpreting the icon as a mother earth figure, Critchley draws attention to the fact that life-sustaining and pleasure-enabling condoms materially come from the rubber trees of the rainforest, which are under even greater threat today than they were three decades ago. Another work, Flagged (2011), pieces together an American flag composed of colored tie-string surgical masks, illuminating how pandemics reshape national and bodily boundaries. While Critchley began the project during the SARS outbreak in 2003, it obviously has new visual associations amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A vertical American flag displayed on a wall with lights shining through from behind.

Jay Critchley, Flagged, 2011. Tie-string surgical masks, mixed media. Part of Jay Critchley’s ongoing Maskerade Ball Project (2003–present). Photo courtesy of Jackson Davidow and SPOKE.

Though much AIDS cultural production from New York City has been incorporated into academic curricula and regularly displayed in mainstream museums, the Boston area’s art histories of HIV/AIDS fall off the radar, even in Boston. This exhibition is a reminder that the nonprofits that have cultivated and supported local queer artistic practices over the decades continue to be the main exhibition venues of such material. In fact, SPOKE, a community space formerly known as Medicine Wheel Productions, originated in 1992 when its founder Michael Dowling was invited by the Boston Center for the Arts to develop a yearly ritual to observe Day Without Art, a day of mourning and action that takes place on December 1, World AIDS Day. Kathleen Bitetti, the curator of Critchley’s exhibition, also has a long and admirable history of HIV/AIDS advocacy in the arts. Looking back at moments in his trajectory without nostalgia, “Democracy of the Land: Patriotism” provides a deeper local context for AIDS cultural activism and demonstrates the ongoing relevance of yesterday’s media-savvy artistic strategies.


Jay Critchley’s “Democracy of the Land: Patriotism” is on view at SPOKE Gallery, 840 Summer St., through June 28, 2024.

Placeolder profile picture with a sprial graphic.

Jackson Davidow

Contributor

More Info