PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island — The environmentalist themes in Jeannie Lynn Hulen‘s exhibition at GRIN, Gibberish: Sapient Fool’s Gold, slowly emerge from the whimsical, child-like installation. The show marries the primary color palette and simple forms of an elementary school textbook’s diagram of the water cycle with the unsettling symbolism of a Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Terracotta clouds pour wooden rain on felt AstroTurf; porcelain tree branches sprout strands of red and blue fabric that deposit clay seeds on the surrounding ground of steel and rock salt; unidentifiable furry critters nuzzle about on stick-like limbs made of ceramic. Whereas Hulen’s earlier installations commented specifically and clearly on consumerism and war, here the different elements coalesce gradually into an understated cautionary tale about the interconnectedness of nature.
There’s a twisted logic to the way natural processes have been re-imagined in the installation. Its central piece, “Gibberish: Tree” (2015), has a cluster of ceramic bowls filled with rock salt — a substance sometimes used to kill plants — sprouting a brown, blue, and pink tree. Instead of leaves, fruits, or blossoms, the tree’s branches produce ribbons of blue fabric woven with red thread, an overly literal visualization of water’s function as nature’s lifeblood. Nevertheless, the assemblage of man-made and mineral materials creates a playful and ominous vision of an alternate landscape. The tree branches’ blue ribbons connect to clumps of terracotta scattered about the sculpture’s steel base on wafer-thin, pinkish-white platforms. The latter’s irregular shapes, set adrift on the metal sheets, resemble aerial images of icebergs. Could Hulen’s surreal tree be set atop a rendering of a melting polar ice cap?
Hard to say, as the works’ meaning is continually subsumed by the play of materials and textures. In the multiple pieces titled “Gibberish: Clouds” (2015), which are set about the perimeter of the space, clumps of partially glazed terracotta sit atop dozens of wooden sticks that are alternately painted white, blue, and silver as they stretch down to the fake grass pedestals below. The crude visualization of meteorological phenomena evokes Cory Arcangel’s “Super Mario Clouds” (2002), but with gloomy undertones. The sculptures’ mid-sections, the “rain” portions of Hulen’s cloud diagrams, are punctuated with tangles of red thread and clumps of crimson terracotta. Are these meant to symbolize the greenhouse gases, carcinogens, and other pollutants we’re constantly pumping into our atmosphere? The misshapen animals grazing below certainly suggest that the water isn’t safe to drink.
Once again, the exhibition’s suggestions of environmental disaster remain just that — suggestions. Gibberish: Sapient Fool’s Gold could be read as an idiosyncratic take on the tree of life or a ceramicist’s attempt at landscape, a genre historically dominated by painters and photographers. But in light of Hulen’s choices of symbolically charged materials and foregoing thematic interests, not seeing her latest installation as a parable about our bleeding and melting environment would be about as nutty as claiming that climate change is a liberal conspiracy.