Building a Marine Environment Inside a Southampton Museum

“Light of the Ocean”
The installation of “Light of the Ocean,” an exhibition by Francisco Alvarado-Juarez opening Friday at the Southampton Arts Center, has been a group effort. Mark Segal

Museum exhibitions are typically closed to the public during installation, but not “Light of the Ocean,” the Southampton Arts Center’s upcoming show, which will launch with a reception Friday at 5 p.m. Several weeks ago, the center issued a call for volunteers to help create the installation, and on a recent weekend afternoon passers-by were free to wander in and chat with the artist, Francisco Alvarado-Juarez.

While he was stapling colorful grocery bags to the gallery walls, Mr. Alvarado-Juarez explained that, although he is a painter, photographer, and video artist, the heart of his practice consists of environmental installations that combine a variety of materials and mediums and involve community participation both before and during the exhibitions.

When completed, “Light of the Ocean” will turn the center’s two main galleries into an immersive marine environment with pathways through sand, seashells, and live sea grass as well as paintings, video projections of water and marine life, the sounds of whales, and the smell of the sea. 

The artist has conducted workshops throughout the year at the center in connection with the show, and the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program has contributed some of the aquatic materials and will set up an education center in the back gallery related to marine and plant life.

“I always incorporate elements of the place where the exhibition is,” Mr. Alvarado-Juarez said. “The maritime theme is specific to Southampton.” The grocery bags, which now number 5,000, have figured in his installations since 1992, when he created “Reefs: Song of the Ocean” at the Islip Art Museum. The bags are painted different colors, and their open edges are cut into fronds that resemble seaweed or other organic life.

The walls of the entrance and main galleries are painted blue, and small images of sea creatures will be stenciled throughout. A big island of sand, shells, and sea grass will occupy the main gallery, and sand will run along the walls. Shot by Mr. Alvarado-Juarez for the exhibition, the video shifts between gorgeous deep-blue underwater footage of sea life to swirling abstract images of water and waves. 

The second gallery will be hung with 30 of Mr. Alvarado-Juarez’s paintings. Most are abstract, but some, which were created for a 2016 installation at the Denver Art Museum, feature precise representations of beetles and butterflies. Since the Denver show was on view for a year, the colors, textures, and smells of the installation changed with the seasons.

That exhibition was followed in 2017 by “Yerba Linda (Pretty Weed)” at the North Dakota Museum of Art. It dealt with prairies and included dirt and other organic material in addition to 3,600 

cut and painted paper bags, paintings, sound, and video.

Born in Honduras, Mr. Alvarado-Juarez is now based in New York City but also has a studio in his native country. He prefers to work mostly with nonprofit institutions, where “three isn’t a whole lot of money, but there is a lot of freedom.” 

People who peered into the center through its open doors were immediately engaged by the riot of colors, textures, and images, and it was clear Mr. Alvarado-Juarez enjoyed interacting with the public. He explained the show and urged visitors to return to watch the installation evolve into its final configuration.

He has created installations in Mexico, the Canary Islands, Cincinnati, Syracuse, Zaragoza, Spain, and elsewhere in the United States and abroad. 

“One of the great things about working in different places is having a dialogue with the public and the guards. One female guard in Denver said to me, ‘Francisco, the nicest thing about this is, every morning when I come into work, I go to your show, I smell it, and then I start work.’ ”

“Light of the Ocean,” sea smells and all, will remain on view through Dec. 31.

A shifting corps of volunteers created artwork for the walls of the exhibition “Light of the Ocean” at the Southampton Arts Center. Mark Segal