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Leo Villareal's computer-driven imagery on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
Installation view of Leo Villareal at the San Jose Museum of Art. Artwork shown: Lightscape, 2002. LEDs, wood, diffusion material, custom software, and electrical hardware, 92 x 130 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Gering & López Gallery, New York. Photo © San Jose Museum of Art.

MADISON, WI.- A pioneer in the use of LEDs and computer-driven imagery, Leo Villareal is increasingly renowned for his sculptural and architectural works that use light to engage audiences in immersive, highly sensory experiences. With more than fifteen sculptures and expansive installations, as well as video documentation of his architectural, site-specific works, Leo Villareal is the artist’s first major traveling museum survey. The exhibition is on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from September 9 to December 30, 2012.

Leo Villareal traces the development of the artist’s work over the past decade, from his earliest experiments using a limited number of strobe lights activated by custom software programming, to his most recent works that feature thousands of tiny pinpoint LEDs firing in hypnotic patterns. With non-repeating light sequences ranging from soothing, undulating rhythms to anxious, kinetic dances, the artist’s luminous sculptures create dazzling environments that probe the formal possibilities of light, color, space, and movement. Often inspired by natural phenomenon such as clouds and sunsets, the works have been compared to a “holodeck Giverny” (The New York Times) and “fireworks, flashes of lightning, even fireflies” (Art in America). Comfortable furniture within the exhibition invites prolonged contemplation.

“Villareal’s work bridges the subculture of technology and the broader international contemporary art world,” says Northrup, who organized the exhibition for the San Jose Museum of Art. “Why shouldn’t twenty-first-century artists use twenty-first-century technologies as creative tools? Although he relies on computers, his work is not about technology. Computers are necessary to drive the light sequences that compose his work, but he deliberately uses code that it simple and pared down.”

The works on view in Leo Villareal range in scale from the 36 x 30 x 7 inch sculpture Red Life (1999) to the 20-foot-wide installation Amanecer (2010). Several works will be presented in experiential installations. For example, visitors recline on specially designed couches to experience the hypnotic animated patterns of Firmament (2001), a 16-foot-diameter, ceiling-mounted light sculpture.

Villareal’s work bridges state-of-the-art technology with both established art historical precedents and trends in the broader contemporary-art world. His original programming is based on John Conway’s Game of Life, a mathematical model that simulates how cells live, die, and multiply. The programming both instructs the lights and allows for an element of chance: using computer technology and mathematical rules to activate his artworks, he demonstrates the capacity of clearly defined systems to generate unpredictable outcomes.

At the same time, Villareal’s work can be firmly situated within the continuum of modern art. For example, his sculptures show affinity with the work of Dan Flavin and James Turrell, pioneers in the fields of Minimalist and Light-and-Space art, respectively, echoing their use of light to frame and define space in the built environment. Visual correlations also exist between Villareal’s art and that associcated with Post-Painterly Abstraction, a movement concerned with optics and the way color and abstraction can create illusions of depth and movement. Rather than using acrylic and canvas, Villareal instead appeals to the aesthetics of abstraction and the science of perception through computer programming and electrical illumination. Moreover, growing up in the 1980s (he was born in 1967), he witnessed the emergence of post-modernist artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Jenny Holzer, who engaged with issues of advertising imagery, media manipulation, and consumer fetishism. Although paralleling their slick, commerce-savvy approach to art, Villareal strips his own work of socio-political content, relying instead on the mesmerizing sequences of light patterns. While he acknowledges these forebears, he sees the structure underlying his art--the coded system of rules that determine the behavior of light--as relating most closely to Sol LeWitt’s conceptual wall drawings, which are similarly based on a pre-determined set of guidelines.

Although influenced by established trends in the art world, Villareal ultimately presents a new vision of art that responds and relates to the innovations of the twenty-first century and reflects our contemporary experience: complex, quickly changing, and fundamentally informed by and integrated with technology.

Born in Albuquerque, NM, in 1967 and raised in El Paso, TX, and in northern Mexico, Leo Villareal began his studies in stage design and art at Yale University, New Haven, CT. He later pursued graduate studies at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, NY, and from 1994 to 1997, worked on cutting-edge virtual reality projects at Paul Allen’s Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto, California. In 1994, Villareal first attended the counterculture festival Burning Man, which inspired him to create work on a larger scale. In 1997, he programmed a 16-light strobe structure that he brought to Burning Man. Originally conceived as a nighttime wayfinding device using pulsing light, the simple light piece was well received and became the precursor to his work in the light medium.

Recent major commissions include Sky (Tampa) (2010) at the Tampa Museum of Art, FL; Stars (2009) at the Galería Javier López in Madrid; and Multiverse (2008) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS; the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Kagawa, Japan; and other public and private collections.

It was recently announced that Villareal will illuminate San Francisco’s Bay Bridge in a major light sculpture 1.5 miles wide and 500 feet high. The work, titled The Bay Lights, is a project of Illuminate the Arts. It celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge and will be on view for two years beginning in early 2013.

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