On a clear morning in early March, a soft light fills the SEABA Center — the office and gallery of the South End Arts and Business Association — on Pine Street in Burlington. Ashley Roark’s pieces, which occupied the entire space for the first month of her exhibition, now cling to the perimeter, making room for an exhibition by HowardCenter artist Larry Bissonnette. Roark, an installation artist, spent hours dismantling and reinstalling the show for its second month to ensure that the pieces continue to fulfill her artistic intentions. She employs hard-edged industrial or commercial materials — metal flashing, the long chain of a bank pen, wire, straight pins, fluorescent lights — and transforms them into nuanced works of art through patterns both created and found.
“Fracture,” a wall-hung piece Roark created by carefully breaking a car windshield, casts a network of diffuse shadows behind it. The evanescent lines arc and coalesce, mimicking the patterns of snowflakes or branches. By gingerly destroying an industrial object, Roark coaxes from it graceful patterns extant in the natural world. The simultaneous hardness and delicacy of the piece is characteristic of Roark’s aesthetic, which seems to reinterpret the industrial world through the visual language of natural forms.
For her piece “Line Continuum,” the artist ordered 1000 feet of the ball chain used to secure pens to bank counters. The chrome chain is installed on a roped-off area of the gray floor. Roark painstakingly wound it in loosely convoluted, concentric rings that recall the ripples in water. The metal alternately shines and darkens as it reflects the space around it, a utilitarian object transformed by this unaccustomed shape.
Roark’s powers of observation and subtlety are again at work in her piece “27 Jars.” The titular jars cluster on a curving demi-staircase in a corner of the gallery. The artist poured various amounts of water — stained with pastel-colored inks — into a series of clear jars, goblets, glasses and snifters. Seen together, the vessels imply human presence but seem mysteriously abandoned. In the subdued morning stillness, they suggest incomplete thoughts, or unfinished dreams. Outside their usual context, the glasses appear somehow melancholy, as if etching the boundary of human absence.
“Lightbar,” a long, square acrylic box fitted with four fluorescent tube lights inside, falls outside the industrial-to-organic parameters of much of the show. An extension cord snakes from the bottom, marring the cleanness of the piece and adding a dose of the DIY attitude. The piece leans against the wall of the gallery at a nearly 45-degree angle, pointing to the old bolts and windows above eye level. Roark intended “Lightbar” to direct viewers’ gazes upward to the largely unnoticed corners of the postindustrial space. In this way she tries to reveal the historic building’s subtleties to others.
“Lightbar” could also be seen as a reappropriation of the fluorescent lighting that pervades American public spaces. Encasing the fluorescent tube lights in a square, translucent shaft, Roark confronts us with their utilitarian blandness. Accordingly, she highlights both the elegance of the old building and our blindness to the industrial ugliness that often surrounds us.
Roark’s reach across media is a thoughtful, experimental undertaking that forces transcendence from the base detritus of the utilitarian world.