The Work of Led Innovator Leo Villareal Will Be on Display in a Landmark Silicon Valley Exhibit

Seeing things in a new light.

  • Category
    People, Social Scene
  • Written by
    Sheryl Nonnenberg
  • Portraits by
    Damian Griffiths
  • Above
    The Bay Lights
    Photo courtesy of James A. Sugar / Alamy

The renowned economist Theodore Levitt wrote, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” Artist Leo Villareal would no doubt agree with that sentiment, and his light-based art work exemplifies how “doing new things” with existing technology can result in creations that are both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually challenging. That’s because Villareal’s palette consists not of oil or acrylic paints, but LED lights and custom software—truly a 21st-century approach to art. Pace Gallery has been affiliated with the artist for several years and this month will present a solo show of his work in its Palo Alto space.

© Leo Villareal, courtesy Pace Gallery

Since its opening in 2015, the Palo Alto outpost of the mega-gallery has shown numerous artists who specialize in technology. Its inaugural offering, staged in a former Tesla dealership in Menlo Park, was the Japanese consortium TeamLab. According to Pace Palo Alto President Elizabeth Sullivan, the show, which was on view for 10 months, attracted over 175,000 visitors. “Though we support many tech-based artists and that is an important part of our programing, we have exhibited an array of Pace artists over the past few years,” she notes.

Presenting a show here by Villareal also seems like a natural fit given the response to his major public art work, The Bay Lights. That project—inspired by the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge—has been referred to as the biggest light sculpture in the world. Over 25,000 LED lights were installed on the span in 2013, with the intention that they would remain for a two-year period. In 2015, a nonprofit group raised $4 million to extend the display.

Closer to home, Villareal is represented in the art collection of the newly reopened Stanford Hospital. Prominently placed at the entrance of the hospital, Villareal’s Buckyball consists of three nested spheres that are illuminated at night and present a never-repeating sequence of colors and patterns.

Explains Sullivan, “Leo is a beloved figure in the Bay Area, and we are thrilled to present his work in the gallery. He will be showing several works from the Instance series as well as one larger work.”

How Villareal became a light artist is now the stuff of legend and, typical of most innovative endeavors, began in a serendipitous way. Born in Albuquerque in 1967, he was not artistic but enjoyed taking things apart to see how they worked. His childhood was mainly spent on a ranch in Texas, but he left to attend boarding school in Rhode Island. His exposure to art began there and continued as an undergraduate at Yale University, where he made sculptures with found objects.

His fascination with technology began as a graduate student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in the Interactive Telecommunications Program. A summer internship at Paul Allen’s think tank in Palo Alto in 1994 cemented his interest in the burgeoning fields of virtual reality and 3-D modeling.

© Leo Villareal, courtesy Pace Gallery

His experiments with light, however, began in a much more prosaic manner. While attending the Burning Man festival in 1997, he became lost in the vast darkness of the desert while trying to find his trailer. He fashioned a glowing sculpture to light his way home, and the idea of working solely with light as his medium was born. Other artists, such as James Turrell, had focused on light as art, so how could Villareal differentiate his work and take it in new directions? “The epiphany I had was connecting software and light,” the artist explained. “To add software and code to that and to start to sequence the light was very, very profound, but it took me many years to get there.”

In a gallery setting, his work usually takes the form of OLED screens that, through the manipulation of pixels by custom software, create rhythmic, non-repeating, and random compositions in light. In the Pace show, the Instance series consists of a series of works that can act independently, but also are networked together to produce interconnected visual effects.

Whether the viewer sees patterns in the abstract imagery or finds references to the cosmos, Villareal acknowledges that everyone will bring their own subjective experience to the art. During his TED Talk in 2017, the artist explained that working with light can be hypnotic and the process of gathering people together, especially with his public art, is like a “digital campfire.”

He will have a chance to gather thousands of people with his latest large-scale endeavor, Illuminated River. This multi-million-dollar public art project in London encompasses the lighting of 15 bridges along the Thames. Unlike The Bay Lights, which are monochromatic, this project will employ a subtle palette of colors that will change via the frequency, intensity, and patterning of the lights. The project is expected to take 10 years and, in spite of his busy schedule, Villareal agreed to an interview with Gentry.

Sheryl Nonnenberg: Other artists have shown light- and LED-based work at Pace Gallery. How do you characterize your approach?

Leo Villareal: I am interested in the universal power of light to create connection. As humans, we are hardcoded to respond to light. It’s something that’s different and more primal than language or imagery. All of my work is abstract and seeks to create a highly subjective and open-ended experience.

Villareal’s work, including the pieces shown here, will be on display at Pace Gallery this month.
© Leo Villareal, courtesy Pace Gallery

You are now working on a very large-scale public art project in London. Do you still create smaller pieces for gallery exhibitions? Which venue is more conducive for appreciating your work?

My studio works on both large public works in addition to gallery-scaled pieces. I see it all as one continuum. Sometimes I learn something on a larger-scale work that inspires something I can show in a gallery and vice versa. I appreciate the intimacy of a gallery and also the mass audience that the piece of monumental public art affords.

What new technology do you anticipate will be developed in the future and how will you work with it?

We are always looking into new technology and ways of using it. I am most interested in bringing people together for communal experiences. I look forward to technology that disappears and simply allows for creative expression. I am an artist first and use technology as a tool. It’s important that the work is driven by ideas and that the technology, as spectacular as it may be, not take over.

This story will appear in an issue devoted to innovators. Who are the innovators, both in art and technology, whom you admire?

I admire artists like James Turrell and Robert Irwin, who have made profound impacts through their use of light and space. I also admire technologists like Ben Fry and Casey Reas, who initiated Processing, a flexible software sketchbook and language for learning how to code within the context of the visual arts. Their efforts to collaboratively create and share an open-source tool for artists that make code accessible is a profound act of generosity.

Andy Warhol said, “The idea is not to live forever, but to create something that will.” If The Bay Lights is extended into the future, is this your immortality?

I truly hope that The Bay Lights will live on. We spend a lot of time in the studio making manuals and archiving materials so that there will be something for future audiences to better understand what we were thinking about. Because we are using technology, this is even more important. Some things will live on and others won’t. I am intrigued by the idea that LED artwork can live forever. I am also fine living in the present moment and fully enjoying what exists. It’s important to be able to let things go.

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