Many unfamiliar flags have been flying over Chicago during the World Cup season, but the most unusual two were made right here by artist Stephen Velky. His renditions of the American flag and the gay pride rainbow flag may at first look comfortably familiar. But as their bumpy texture and sickeningly sweet smell attest, these flags are made of chewed gum. In replicating these symbols of collectivity in such a personal medium, Velky has created a pair of deadpan works that explore our ambivalent feelings about their fabric counterparts.
In theory, Re-Chewed Gum Flag could stir the same dewy-eyed visions of national unity as its cloth cousin does. Instead, by invoking the fear of contagion that inevitably accompanies discarded gum, it challenges such a simplistic view of our divided country. The tendency to imagine Old Glory as the symbolic amalgamation of our "common threads" gets lost somewhere in the shining coat of saliva. Thread woven together can transcend its individual strands and become whole cloth. Hundreds of pieces of chewed gum pressed against each other, however, cohere into little else than a smelly eyesore. Re-Chewed Gum Flag slyly reminds us of our ignorance of and hostility toward those with whom we share "common threads."
Despite the diversity implied by its rainbow design, the pride flag hasn't worked as an umbrella emblem for the entire spectrum of gays and lesbians. The flag is also a convenient way for business owners to signal gays and lesbians that they, and their money, are welcome. But when the rainbow flag-wavers step up to the cash register, a rainbow of less affluent gays and lesbians cannot follow.
By rendering this exclusive token of market-based assimilation in gum, Velky chews up its ideology and spits it back out. Small wonder, then, that at this year's pride parade, World's Largest Chewed Gum Pride Flag was cheered most enthusiastically by lesbians, youth, and people of color. Like Re-Chewed Gum Flag, the sticky and stinky World's Largest Chewed Gum Pride Flag debunks its subject's pretentions of universality. In the process, though, the pride flag reaches a much more diverse audience than the original.
World's Largest Chewed Gum Pride Flag is included in the "Salon des Refuses," the first show at the Thorne Gallery and Performance Space, 1144 N. Milwaukee. The group show is up through August 14. The gallery is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, noon to 5, and by appointment. Call 486-1144 for details.