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LEDs light path to art (photos)

New exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art captures the work of artist Leo Villareal who uses LEDs as a conduit for telling stories through math and coding.

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Daniel Terdiman
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Big Bang from the side

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."

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Big Bang from the front

This is "Big Bang," an animated piece by Villareal that produces rich, complex, and seemingly infinitely varied patterns, entirely out of LEDs.
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Big Bang 2

Another look at "Big Bang," with a completely different pattern than in the the previous image.
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Strobe Matrix

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.
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Red Life

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."
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Metatron

This is "Metatron," from 2002. Like most of Villareal's pieces, this one follows logic-based systems to create its compelling patterns and sequences.
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Chasing Rainbows

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.'"

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Chasing Rainbows 2

"Chasing Rainbows," like many of Villareal's pieces, is capable of millions of different colors and countless color variations and patterns.
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Column 6

This is "Column 6," which Villareal created in 2005.
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More Column 6

Like many other Villareal pieces, "Column 6" produces constantly changing patterns and sequences.
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Lightscape

"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."
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This is "Amanacer," which produces subtle, slowly developing patterns. It was created in 2010.
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Hive

This ceiling-mounted piece is called "Hive." Villareal created it in 2007.
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This is "Primordial," at the entrance to the exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art. Created in 2009, it is made from white LEDs, plexiglass, aluminum, and uses custom software and electrical hardware.
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Primordial 2

Seen here, "Primordial" is producing completely different patterns than in the previous image.
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Diamond Sea

This is "Diamond Sea," from 2007.
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Trihex

This is 2010's "Trihex." Each of the three hexagons has its own unique programming, and can display imagery independent of the other two.
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Trihex junction

A close-up of the junction of three of the LED tubes used in "Trihex."
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Inside Trihex

A view down into one of the LED tubes used for "Trihex."
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Several pieces

Seen here are several Villareal pieces in his exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Art. From left are "Diamond Sea," "Trihex," "Star," and "Amanacer."
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Star

This is "Star," from 2008. As with many of the pieces in Villareal's show, it is hard to capture the dynamic nature of the animation in a still photo.

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