Diving To Dynamic Depths: Sea Of Heartbreak At Newport

"Algae Bloom" (detail), 2017, mixed media, handmade paper, 140” x 360” x18”.

by J. Fatima Martins

“Plastic is here to stay — what matters is what we do with it; if my art falls into the ocean it’s going to biodegrade, and that’s exactly what I want it to do,” explained artist Joan Hall while describing the process of making organic paper pulp for her newest major installation, “Sea of Heartbreak,” at the Newport Art Museum. The exhibition features five large-scale, nontoxic and plant-based printed and painted abstract expressive three-dimensional wall constructions, and a circular site-specific glass and sand multi-component floor piece. The glass sculpture is a collaborative work with glassmaker Benny Giguere of Gather Glass in Providence, Rhode Island.

Trained as a printmaker and working from the perspective of a sculptor, Hall builds sculptures that are a hybrid of printmaking, painting, metal and plastic that mimic and allude to liquid and plant forms. Her compositions are experiential — you need to physically be in the same space with them to see the complex layers and structures as well as the intricate details and alternating textures. The sculptures are not shallow. Hall dislikes quick-shot arrangements; her focus is constructing dynamic depth that materially mirrors ocean quality. She’s interested in recreating the experience of looking into or being within sea water, with all its rhythmic and unexpected movement and murky abundant macro and micro life, both organic and synthetic.

Removing the obvious subject, Hall’s compositions can be read as abstract expressionistic compositions, formally exploring solid space, scale and alternating line. Without the biological and environmental theme, however, they’d be less emotive. The most intriguing aspect of Hall’s work is that her art is an expansion of her research into and personal firsthand observations of marine health. Her sculptures then function as unconventional teaching tools, jumping off points for dialogue about a variety of environmental concerns. It’s gentle “activist art” — responsive to and revealing ocean health, showing the life and death of the sea ecosystem as it readjusts itself to pollution, sometimes altering in unexpected ways.

“I’ve seen ocean areas deteriorate but I’ve also seen them return to health and be cleaned up,” explained Hall. The installation “Invasion of Hull Cove,” for example, spotlights a regional ecological problem — the blooming of invasive rose-colored algae in local waters. Hall observed, “The beach should not be pink”

“Invasion of Hull Cove” is a simulated wallpaper installation showing pink algae bloom as a repeating pattern, decorative and beautiful, giving the illusion of a pretty floral design. Attached to the wallpaper surface are three-dimensional, painted seaweed motifs. Hall described the piece lightheartedly as the “dangerous wallpaper.”

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