By Howard Karren
Thursday, 25 July 2019
When Jay Critchley, Provincetown’s resident performance-installationartist- writer-satirist-activist- impresario, sat down to discuss his upcoming talk, “Democracy of the Land,” which he’ll be giving on Tuesday at Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, a messianic mission quickly emerged. Ever since he was “born again” as an artist some 38 years ago, at the age of 33, Critchley has been creating projects and series and films, on his own and collaborating with others, on subjects that he feels need addressing. “It’s just being engaged in the politics of the world and the country,” he says.
Before re-imagining his life as an artist, Critchley’s “former self ” was devoted to “human services” — and he still is, by running the Provincetown Compact, which he founded 26 years ago and has raised millions to support charitable causes, mostly by holding the annual Swim for Life & Paddle Flotilla in September. “I worked for youth in Connecticut,” Critchley says. “I was a VISTA volunteer in Oregon. I worked at a drop-in center in Provincetown — that’s what got me here. I was married at the time. I have a son and three grandchildren. I came out as a gay man first. The ‘born again as an artist’ came four years later. My sister sent me a subscription to Art in America. I said, ‘Why are you sending this to me?’ She said, ‘Because you’re an artist.’ How could I get away with being an artist? It just wasn’t part of my thinking. We’re talking about Irish Catholic in the ’50s.”
Critchley is an open book, and he’s used to going over the particulars of his life and work. A solo exhibit on him at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 2015 featured an installation of his rebuilt living room, with many of the objects he has collected (to wit: “I have an extensive collection of natural colored sands from around the world,” he says). Indeed, he has made his life, his projects and Provincetown the basis of his art, a kind of personal mythology. He calls being an artist “the core of my identity,” and that’s true: even as a kid, he and five of his sisters went on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour” and sang barbershop harmonies.
Critchley recently returned from a residency in Santa Fe, N.M., where, he says, “I did a project on the ‘whiteness house’ tarred and feathered. It’s a walk-in model of a White House that I created. That was all about race, ethnicity and whiteness. What does it mean to be white? White people have been invisible. What does it mean to have a white president who follows a black president?”
With 2020 approaching, Critchley also has the Mayflower — and the 400th anniversary of its landing here — on his mind. “I started theProvincetown Compact based on the Mayflower Compact: let’s broaden the idea of what the compact is and create a vision for the future that’s more inclusive,” he says. “So ‘Democracy of the Land’ is an extension of that. It’s looking at the ecology of the land and the ecology of politics: the arrival of white people in the Americas as an ecological catastrophe. It’s based on power and on
our relationship with the land. And I mean ‘land’ as a broad term that’s physical and metaphysical.”
Going back to the popes’ Doctrine of Discovery, from the time of Columbus’ New World journeys, Critchley concludes that “religion is the founding principle of this country. Pope Nicholas wrote that any land that you discover, you can capture, vanquish and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ, and put them into perpetual slavery and take all their possessions and property. It’s from the origin story of the Americas. Here is [Puritan minister] Cotton Mather: ‘The woods were almost cleared of those pernicious creatures to make room for a better growth.’ I’m not saying anything new. To me, the Pilgrimsare a symbol of Western culture’s religious-based invasion and destruction of the environment, including people and the land, based on papal documents. The Supreme Court has used the documents to rule against native peoples since then.”
“Democracy and the Land” will be a culmination of sorts. “This project incorporates a lot of the ideas that I’ve been working with for over 30 years,” Critchley says. “Those ideas are based on ecological concerns, both political and environmental. Finding ways of dealing with the challenges of HIV and class and race issues. Queer issues. The talk is a unique piece. It’s a performance. It’s my voice and my artistic take on 2020. It’s the backstory, from my point of view as an artist and as a citizen.”
Judging from Critchley’s track record, that’s saying something.