by Mikko Lautamo
Leo Villareal’s The Bay Lights, the gargantuan public installation of computer sequenced LEDs on the west span of the Bay Bridge, became permanent in January. The animated lights produce novel sequences and patterns that mesmerize and captivate, like staring into a campfire. The monumental size has a lot to do with the impact of the piece, but can the same sense of wonder be conveyed on a smaller scale?
It depends. While the works on view are domestic-sized light works, they operate on the same premise: flash LEDs in precise sequences to create engaging abstract patterns. Particle Universe, a rectangular bank of white LEDs spread across reflective metal slats, is the largest at 20 x 9 feet. Its surface acts like a low-resolution monitor, showing pixels at various levels of brightness to make animations in shades of white. One sequence bounces flashes about like ricocheting balls, another creates radiating spiral-like splashes in a pond, while yet another shows traveling clouds of dark pixels that merge together and pull apart randomly. Each sequence is varied and quite literally dazzling, but after 20 minutes or so the repetition of these patterns begins to take on the look and feel of high-tech furniture: eye-catching but not saying much beyond “How cool is this thing?”
And to be fair, it is very cool. Villareal studied sculpture at Yale where he discovered the Minimalism of Donald Judd and the light and space work of James Turrell, but the real turning point for him came at Burning Man in the 1990s. Out on the playa he hooked a digital sequencer up to several strobe lights and created a lo-fi version of what he does today. More than 20 years later, and backed by a team of engineers and programmers, he’s still trying to capture something elemental about light: the purity of its expression and the communal nature of firelight.
Vessel is one piece that walks the line between sparkly furniture and electronic sculpture. It is a white plastic cylinder, about human size, with vertical strips of LEDs arranged in concentric circles in a hollow portion at the top, something like an odd lamp. The lights create 3D patterns that change from spiraling tornadoes to falling water to growing spheres. It would be a breakthrough if Villareal hadn’t done it better five years ago with Cylinder. Particle Universe is another victim of Villareal’s past success, impressive on its own, but pale in comparison to Bay Lights or Multiverse, a 41,000 LED installation at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The work situated in acrylic cases is more at home at this scale. Semi-opaque acrylic softens the LEDs into a pleasing gradient, similar to the low-res work of Jim Campbell. The Gradient series,(Gold, Orange and Pink)is
basically Rothko crossed with a lava lamp. In these, rectangular color fields divided by borders and bars of contrasting color shift almost imperceptibly over time, so slowly that I had to confirm with photos that the compositions do, in fact, change. The reference to Rothko is clever, but also speaks to Villareal’s own pursuit of the spiritual via the experiential, the optical flicker of paint replaced by the literal flicker of LEDs.
Radiant Wheel is the best work on view. This unassuming spoked wheel resembles much of Villareal’s other work, except that the patterns and sequences are far more nuanced. Over time the LEDs form numinous clouds of color that vault and pulse like music, rising to crescendos, falling back to light and dark, then nothing. While it’s clear that Villareal intends for the meaning of his work to reside in the sequences rather than in the forms, only Wheel bears that out convincingly.
Villareal’s work is hypnotic, cutting edge, and, in limited cases, truly magical. Although he repeats himself, and the gallery work cannot hold a candle to any of his site-specific installations, it is generally compelling. Any specific reference to time or space remains obscure, hidden away in the code, but the lights still manage to evoke the ordered chaos of organic life. Like flickering flames, they draw you in.
Leo Villareal: “Timespace” @ Fused Space through March 11, 2016.