Let there be LEDs

Leo Villareal

Museum visitors Claire Covert, left, and Ryan Salem absorbed in <i>Leo Villareal: Animating Light</i> at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Museum visitors Claire Covert, left, and Ryan Salem absorbed in Leo Villareal: Animating Light at the Nevada Museum of Art.

Photo By Amy beck

Leo Villareal: Animating Light is currently on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St. For more information, call 329-3333 or visit www.nevadaart.org.

Leo Villareal got lost at Burning Man. It was the early ’90s, and there weren’t crowds or roads. It was pitch-black desert. “I experienced a child-like sense of panic,” he remembers.

The next year, Villareal came prepared with a 16-bulb light sculpture that he and others could use as a point of reference on the playa.

He soon found himself merging his love of sculpture with his love of direction. A few years later, he and some friends were shipping huge crates from New York to the festival, all full of building materials ranging from geodesic domes to more rudimentary light sculptures that challenged the design software available at the time.

Not only does Villareal no longer worry about getting lost in the desert, but his work is now on display at the National Gallery of Art and museums throughout the art world, and he’s recognized as a pioneer in the use of LEDs and computer-driven light art and architecture.

If any unassailable trace of magic is ever found in one of native New Mexican artist Villareal’s mystic, indefatigable sculptures of light or in one of his many luminous odysseys and installations, it will likely exist in the marginalia between the lines—in the infinite room left open like some wild random gesture. It will shock as it takes root, like a weed growing in cement. And it will look nearly identical to any of the thousand other algorithms that program the movements of lights, the code that causes the artifice of 0s and 1s, offs and ons, to suddenly blossom from the dim into what should necessarily be impossible—a kind of life, as we understand it, in the unerring and exacting medium of truth: light. But that’s a huge “if.” An even bigger, “when.” For now, Villareal is content to explore and play with the shadows and the illusions.

“I’m trying to create emergent behavior,” says Villareal.

That magical, transcendent moment will have to wait. But it’s hard to slow down anything moving at the speed of light.

Certainly, mere complication itself does not breed artificial intelligence any more than blinking strobe lights and repetitious bass knocks impart some omniscient invisible choreographer’s hand on a group of tripping hippies or club clowns.

Before the clean well-lit conflagration, the visitor to Villareal’s exhibit is met first by a brainwave-tweaking drone that seems to imitate the second-per-cycle hum and dub of electricity being squeezed like juice from the electromagnetic spectrum.

“Primordial,” one of Villareal’s most inspired and evocative pieces welcomes the visitor to the show. It’s the most human and humane of his work on display. Its Plexiglas-muddled LEDs seem to connote a live, ongoing MRI or CAT scan. The beating fetus—certainly not meant to spark that debate, but rather to remind us that we are both outside and inside—moves in pixilated bursts and creases. Visitors dance with “Primordial” more than with any of Villareal’s other pieces—they step lightly forward, back away, squint, move forward—all an attempt to see if they do indeed have any effect on what they’re seeing.

Both “Open Air” and “Sunburst” seem to reflect sun cycles—the former a reddish solar minimum and the latter an activated yellow solar maximum.

“I don’t always know what’s going to happen,” says Villareal of the moment when a new project gets plugged in and turned on. “Chance and randomness play their parts.”

While he says he used to write his own software, as the projects grew more complex, so did the code needed to cycle in and out of them. He’s now sourced that part out to experts.

Villareal is fascinated by synesthesia.

“I’m really interested in the remapping of the senses,” he says, often wondering, “What would some of these pieces sound like if you could hear them?”