SAN JOSE, Calif.--To many, LEDs are no more than a practical and efficient light source. But to others, they are the basis for much more, and artist Leo Villareal is definitely in the latter group.
Though Villareal's artistic work with light began with incandescent bulbs, he soon moved on to working with LEDs, and over the last few years has become one of the most respected artists working with them. His pieces have appeared in museums around the country, and now a survey exhibition of 19 of his works is at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Villareal looks at LEDs as merely a conduit to telling a story through math and coding. "My work is focused on stripping systems down to their essence to better understand the underlying structures and rules that govern how they work," he said. "I am interested in lowest common denominators such as pixels or the zeros and ones in binary code."
This is a side view of one of Villareal's most compelling pieces, "Big Bang."
This is "Strobe Matrix," Villareal's first formal attempt at light art--though it had a more practical use when he created it in 1997: It was used as a night-time beacon for his Burning Man camp. Though Villareal is now known for his work with LEDs, this was done with incandescent bulbs. Still, the sense of sequencing and using light as an art form is readily evident.
This is Villareal's "Red Life," created in 1999. As the exhibit placard for the piece--which is animated--says, "Pulsing like a nerve or a blood cell, Red Life provides an example of rules-based art--art that utilizes one or more logic-based systems to direct and design the creation of the object."
This is "Chasing Rainbows," which Villareal created in 2004.
According to the exhibition, "Villareal's early light sculptures were the equivalent of 'single channel.' But in 2004, more sophisticated custom software helped him to create Chasing Rainbows. This pivotal piece was a major step forward: 'I was able to see what I was doing in real time on the lights whereas before I had to go through very complex steps to see what I was doing. In a way, I had been working blind; it was like making a drawing with an apparatus that attached to your hand. I would have to go through multiple steps to make a mark, and then wait five to ten minutes to go see the mark. There was this huge disconnect between what I was doing and the results, because I couldn't see it in real time.'"
"Lightscape," from 2002, showcased Villareal's use, according to the exhibit, of "diffusion materials to soften the lights and give them an ethereal feeling, and programmed slowly shifting sequences of color. To many critics, this work resembled a digital update of the sort of abstract painting--Color Field--that became prominent in the 1960s. This movement emphasized color and optical effects."