Jay Critchley and the art of making up companies

Artist-activist @daywithoutoil invents mock corporations for performance art at @FAU gallery.

In 1990, performance artist Jay Critchley donned his corporate hat for Nuclear Recycling Consultants, a company he founded, to pitch an idea to 80 realty investors at a bar in Exeter, N.H. Critchley told the realtors he aimed to convert a row of abandoned nuclear facilities into the Nuclear Resort Community at Seabrook, a community of "luxury seaside radiation cottages" in the shadow of Seabrook's active nuclear power plant. Even his posterboard illustrations seemed professional: idyllic summer nooks, occupied by couples smoking cigarettes and a blonde in a bathing suit, overlooking a lake filled with sailboats, seagulls and radiation poisoning.

Investors took him "way too seriously," Critchley recalls, flipping through old posterboards at Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt Center Gallery. "I didn't want to go up there and laugh in their faces at their stupidity," Critchley says. "But they didn't even blink when I told them the cottage would have louver-leaded windows, so if the plant melted down, at least the windows would be safe."

Some 150 posterboards, photographs, videos, sculptures and graphics capture 30 years of shenanigans in "Jay Critchley: Incorporated," opening Friday, Feb. 5, at the gallery. Critchley, an activist who turns spoofing corporate America into an art form, is the founder and CEO of 29 real companies, the logos for which decorate one wall in the gallery. A sample of names: Old Glory Condoms, TACKI (Tampon Applicator Creative Clubs International), Mobil Warming and P-Town Inc., that last one a satirical, Disney-fied rebranding of Provincetown, Mass., with replicas of Cinderella's castle and a "survivalist camp resort" for anyone afraid of "global warming and gay people."

Critchley, 69, says he turned to forming mock companies in the early 1980s as a way of "dealing with growing political and cultural problems" such as HIV-AIDS, corporate greed, Y2K and nuclear energy.

"Corporations now have a controlling factor on influence on politics and the distribution of wealth, especially since Citizens United," says Critchley, who lives in Provincetown. "So in the '80s, I decided I should become a corporation. What faster way is there to enhance your voice and give influence?"

Many of Critchley's companies have courted controversy. An infamous example is Old Glory Condoms — patriotic rubbers colored red, white and blue — which turned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office purple when the artist sought to trademark the contraceptives. The government denied the application (it was "immoral and scandalous to associate the flag with sex" one line of gallery-wall text reads), but Critchley won after a three-year legal battle, and shipped some 150,000 condoms to consumers.

"This was the year we had an AIDS crisis, but the Supreme Court was more interested in allowing flag-burning as protected free speech," Critchley recalls. "So then I thought, 'What does it really mean to be patriotic?' It means saving lives. I think creating an image of a flag on a condom was a logical thing."

At the gallery, Critchley's condoms decorate Statue of Liberty souvenirs and cover a row of copper busts depicting presidents John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. Nearby are artifacts from his other exploits: "Deep Bones," photos from a 2011 New York installation of a 1979 MG Sports car mummified in plastic shopping bags ("both are made from or use petroleum," Critchley says); and a sculpture he calls the Septic Space," an aboveground septic tank that resembles a teepee that, in 1997, he marketed to investors as a "theater in the ground" for "opera, drag and performance arts."

FAU gallery director Rod Faulds says he roped in FAU professors to collaborate on the "ambitious" art show. The "Septic Space," a skeleton of metal rods visitors can climb inside, was built by fine art students.

"A lot of Jay's projects take place outside of a gallery, so 70 percent of the show is documentary video and photos," Faulds says. "He's a crazy guy who revisits all of the political issues that affect us, and his persistence in carrying them out is what's most impressive."

"Jay Critchley: Incorporated" will run Friday, Feb. 5, until April 2 at Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt Center Gallery, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Critchley will deliver a staged reading and performance at 7 p.m. Feb. 5. Admission is free. Call 561-297-2661 or go to FAU.edu/Galleries

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