In Downtown Newark:  A River Flows, A River Glows

By Jeanne Brasile

Steve Rossi “Building, Blocks and Bridges to Newark Bay” is on view through May 6 at Gallery Aferro, 73 Market Street

Steve Rossi, currently an artist-in-residence at Gallery Aferro, is a versatile sculptor finding inspiration in all sorts of materials such as altered View Master toys, Fruit Loops cereal and chewing gum found on urban sidewalks.  In his latest artistic foray, he moves into the digital realm with “Rivers, Blocks, and Bridges to Newark Bay,” an installation fabricated from CNC routed wood paired with LED lights sequenced through Arduino using tweaked open-source code.  The wall mounted installation faces outward on Market Street, luring viewers by day with its bold orange and yellow palette—a reference to road signage. 

Rivers, Blocks, and Bridges Newark Bay [day view], addressable LED lights, Arduino Uno R3 computer boards, and acrylic paint on MDF, 6’x8’, 2023

After dark the installation transforms, the colorful surface transmuting into a unified dark field backlit by the blue glow of reflected LED light.  The attentive viewer will notice the light traces a linear, meandering path from left to right in an undulating pattern suggestive of water flowing downstream.  This element reveals the sources of Rossi’s inspiration, the nearby Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, both of which terminate into Newark Bay.  Depicted from above, the bird’s-eye view of this colossal watershed in a highly industrialized urban corridor captured the artist’s attention with crisscrossing waterways, bridges, highways, airports and railways.  Raised in Pittsburgh, Rossi is attuned to rivers and their relationship to industrialized space, along with the attendant ecological impacts of human activity, as the city’s proximity to three rivers led it to become a center of steel manufacturing in the 20th century. 

Rivers, Blocks, and Bridges Newark Bay [night view], addressable LED lights, Arduino Uno R3 computer boards, and acrylic paint on MDF, 6’x8’, 2023

Such built environments represent human interventions in the natural landscape, something Rossi became fascinated by, on a plane trip from the east coast to New Mexico a few years back. Looking down from the vantage point on the plane, he began to take notice of the landscape of the American Midwest’s abundant farmland.  Watered by pivot irrigation systems, the crops grow in circular plots. For Rossi, this geometry in the landscape became a form of mechanized mark-making related to the land art movement of the 1960’s.

Rossi’s concern for the landscape, ecosystems, and the built environment come together in this dramatic visual format that, after dusk, pulses, twinkles, shines and glows much like the landscape appears when flying over an urban area at night.  By day, the piece offers a more traditional yet compelling form.  Both iterations are satisfying in their own way and both should be experienced to optimally appreciate the full range of meaning and form.  “Rivers, Blocks, and Bridges to Newark Bay” opens a larger conversation concerning how humans, collectively and individually, shape the built environment and perhaps most importantly, the natural world.  

Jeanne Brasile is a writer, artist, curator and yoga instructor living and working in Essex County. She is currently the director of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University.