It’s hard to know where to look upon entering Leo Villareal’s exhibition. Light literally dances on every wall and even on the ceiling—the blinking lights bridge the many large light sculptures and installations, melting the exhibition space into one monumental light show. Villareal’s first traveling museum survey, on view at the San Jose Museum of Art, is an exhibition of the artist’s work using strobe and LED light, which he has coded himself to animate into various patterns and movements.
Many of the works feel almost filmic. It is as if the frames and supports are actually sets for an array of movements that are calculated just enough to feel random. Star (2008) is a set for a brilliant patterning of light that flicks and courses through the spokes of the circular frame hung on the wall. On closer inspection, one can see the data chips of the LED bulbs meticulously placed and exposed; the visible guts of the piece are a nice touch, reminding the viewer that Villareal composed and conducted this visual symphony.
Firmament (2010) is a ceiling-mounted light installation that involves viewers’ reclining in custom-built couches and staring up at an animated light display that Villareal also programmed. The installation is jarringly hypnotic; it possesses a little bit of James Turrell’s disorienting and quiet light spaces and just a splash of the overwhelming grip of the Studio 54 dance floor.
There is a playfulness to the sculptures that winks back to the lighthearted seriousness of the classic children’s toy, Lite-Brite, which involved carefully inserting small multicolored plastic pegs into an illuminated surface to create “light drawings.”
Villareal exists within a long history of artists whose primary interest is the study of light, from the Impressionist painters to photographers. But Villareal’s exploration of light is not through the creation of an image; rather, it is through the manipulation of light itself as form. He is a remarkable composer and conductor of sorts, leading and organizing lights to fade, glow, and blink in ways that manage to make the viewer have a moment, even if it’s a fleeting one, when they forget they are looking at art.