Leo Villareal’s innovative union of art and technology takes center stage in Pace Gallery’s reopening exhibition

Leo Villareal’s “Detector” exhibit, shown in Pace Gallery of London, 2019. (Image via Leo Villareal’s website)

By Sheryl Nonnenberg

If you have driven across the Bay Bridge, you have seen Leo Villareal’s large-scale, site-specific “The Bay Lights.” Installed in 2013, it consists of 25,000 LED lights installed on the span that continuously change, thanks to a custom software design.

Leo Villareal’s “Bay Lights” installation, 2013. (Image via Leo Villareal’s website)

Farther down on the Peninsula, Villareal was chosen as part of the public art program at the new Stanford Hospital. His “Buckyball,” from 2019, is sited at the entrance of the complex and offers a non-repeating sequence of colors and patterns in a sculpture of nested spheres.

But Villareal also works in smaller, gallery-scale editions, as can be seen in “Harmony of the Spheres,” his new exhibition at Pace Gallery that is now on view until October 10th. (The show, which was originally scheduled to be displayed in early Spring, was put on hold due to the pandemic.)

There is some irony that Villareal’s small screen work is on view at a time when our lives are so focused around computer screens but don’t let that dissuade you from visiting the gallery. This is an art form that must be seen and experienced in person and, after months of online only art, offers a welcome change. Villareal’s merging of art and technology is always impressive, mesmerizing — and an antidote to the preponderance of politics, anger, negativity and despair that seems to pervade cyber space at the moment.

“Leo is a beloved figure in the Bay Area, and we are thrilled to present his work in the gallery,” said Pace President Elizabeth Sullivan.

The exhibition consists of eleven screens, of various sizes. As always, the Pace installation team has found a way to present the works in a dramatic and advantageous way. The gallery is sectioned into three zones, with two walls framing the largest piece, “Musica Universalis” in the rear of the gallery space. The walls have been painted a dark gray/black, an effective and neutral background for the glowing LEDs in each piece. With no labels or sound, except for the gentle hum of the monitors, there is an almost sacred, meditative ambience. And since there will be timed admission to the gallery, odds are that visitors will have a quiet and contemplative experience.

Villareal, who holds an undergraduate degree in sculpture from Yale University and a graduate degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, found his way to working with light in a serendipitous way. While attending the Burning Man Festival in 1997, he became lost in the desert. Realizing that a large light affixed to his tent would help him find his way, he created a glowing sculptural form. He began working solely with light but added a crucial component — software code. In an email interview, he explained, “The epiphany I had was connecting software and light. To add software and code to that and to start to sequence the light was very profound, but it took me many years to get there.”

Light-hearted: Leo Villareal, 2019. (Image via Leo Villareal’s website)

Eight of the pieces are part of the artist’s “Instance” series and are, according to gallery information, “Singular works, in their digital and physical forms, that become malleable synchronies wherein the possibility of order, however fleeting and subtle, appears visually across the units before gradually dissipating into a chaotic state.”

This translates to a non-stop sequence of patterns and shapes that move, evolve and dance in unpredictable but fascinating ways. Impose upon them what references you like: exploding planets, shooting stars, sun bursts, fireworks or glitter shot from a cannon. The longer you watch, the more things change and yet it is not frenetic or nerve-wracking. As Villareal described it, “My work is very much for humans. It goes beyond the simple combination of software and LEDs. Through my process, I have found a way to tap into something deeper that elicits a sense of wonder and awe in an audience. It feels primal and elemental.”

The artist has also said that his light work is like a “communal campfire.” You will wish that you could set up a chair and spend a lot of time in front of “Musica Universalis.” It dominates the gallery with its size and the boldness of its transformations. The press release describes this piece as “referencing an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies as a form of music which is not audible but rather a harmonic and mathematical exploration of orbital resonance.” Does one need to know that in order to be impressed and captivated by this piece? Definitely not. Relax and enjoy the show.

Pace is open to the public by reservation only, with a limited number per hour. To make a reservation: www.pacegallery.reservations.

(From left:) Instance 28 & Instance 27, 2019 (LEDs, custom software, electrical hardware, steel). (Images courtesy of Pace Gallery)

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