Leo Villareal
September 9, 2012 to December 30, 2012

A pioneer in the use of LEDs and computer-driven imagery, the New York-based artist Leo Villareal is increasingly renowned for his light sculptures and architectural, site-specific works. With more than fifteen sculptures and installations, Leo Villareal is the artist’s first major traveling museum survey. The exhibition will be on view in the main galleries of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from September 9 to December 30, 2012. An MMoCA Nights opening celebration, including a talk by the exhibition’s curator, JoAnne Northrup, is scheduled for 6:30–9 pm on Saturday, September 8.

Leo Villareal traces the development of the artist’s work over the past decade, from his earliest experiments using a limited number of strobe lights activated by custom programming, to his most recent works that feature thousands of pinpoint LEDs firing in hypnotic patterns. With non-repeating light sequences ranging from soothing, undulating rhythms to anxious, kinetic dances, the artist’s luminous sculptures create dazzling, immersive environments that probe the formal possibilities of light, color, space, and movement.

Villareal’s work bridges twenty-first century technology with both established art historical precedents and trends in the broader contemporary-art world. Governed by computer code, the artist’s pulsating light sculptures are rooted in his interest in underlying structures and rules. He bases his hand-coded programming—which is manifested through patterns of light—on John Conway’s Game of Life, a mathematical model that simulates how cells live, die, and multiply. His programming both instructs the lights and allows for an element of chance; using computer technology and mathematical rules to activate his artworks, Villareal demonstrates the capacity of clearly defined systems to generate unpredictable outcomes.

At the same time, Leo Villareal’s work can be firmly situated within the continuum of modern art. For example, his sculptures show affinity to the work of Dan Flavin and James Turrell, pioneers in the fields of Minimalist and Light-and-Space art, respectively, echoing their use of light to frame and define space in the built environment. Visual correlations also exist between Villareal’s art and that associcated with Post-Painterly Abstraction, a movement concerned with optics and the way color and abstraction can create illusions of depth and motion. Rather than using paint and canvas, Villa­real instead appeals to the aesthetics of abstraction and the science of perception through computer programming and electrical illumination. Moreover, growing up in the 1980s (he was born in 1967), he witnessed the emergence of post-modernist artists such as Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Jenny Holzer, who engaged with issues of advertising imagery, media manipulation, and consumer fetishism. Although paralleling their slick, commerce-savvy approach to art, Villareal strips his own work of socio-political content, relying instead on the mesmerizing sequences of light patterns. While he acknowledges these forebears, he sees the coded system of rules underlying his art as relating most closely to Sol LeWitt’s conceptual wall drawings, which are similarly based on a pre-determined set of guidelines.

Ultimately, Villareal presents a new vision of art that reflects our contemporary experience: complex, quickly changing, and fundamentally informed by and integrated with technology.

Exhibition Sponsors

Leo Villareal was organized by the San Jose Museum of Art. The exhibition is sponsored by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation, and Bank of America.

The Wisconsin presentation of Leo Villareal is generously sponsored by Mary Ellyn and Joe Sensenbrenner; Ellen Rosner and Paul Reckwerdt; James and Sylvia Vaccaro; Perkins Coie, LLP; Alliant Energy Foundation; McGladrey; Terry Haller; Dane Arts with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.