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Date of Release: 
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
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Katie Kazan, Director of Public Information
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“Leo Villareal” at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

“Leo Villareal”
At the MadisonMuseum of Contemporary Art
September 9–December 30, 2012

MADISON, WI--A pioneer in the use of LEDs and computer-driven imagery, Leo Villareal is increasingly renowned for his sculptural and architectural works that use light to engage audiences in immersive, highly sensory experiences. With more than fifteen sculptures and expansive installations, as well as video documentation of his architectural, site-specific works, Leo Villareal is the artist’s first major traveling museum survey. The exhibition will be on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from September 9 to December 30, 2012.

The public is invited to a special MMoCA Nights opening celebration for Leo Villareal from 6:30 to 9 pm on Saturday, September 8, 2012. The evening will feature a talk by the exhibition curator, JoAnne Northrup, from 7 to 8 pm in the museum’s lecture hall.
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 software programming, to his most recent works that feature thousands of tiny 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 environments that probe the formal possibilities of light, color, space, and movement. Often inspired by natural phenomenon such as clouds and sunsets, the works have been compared to a “holodeck Giverny” (The New York Times) and “fireworks, flashes of lightning, even fireflies” (Art in America). Comfortable furniture within the exhibition invites prolonged contemplation.
“Villareal’s work bridges the subculture of technology and the broader international contemporary art world,” says Northrup, who organized the exhibition for the San Jose Museum of Art. “Why shouldn’t twenty-first-century artists use twenty-first-century technologies as creative tools? Although he relies on computers, his work is not about technology. Computers are necessary to drive the light sequences that compose his work, but he deliberately uses code that it simple and pared down.”
The works on view in Leo Villareal range in scale from the 36 x 30 x 7 inch sculpture Red Life (1999) to the 20-foot-wide installation Amanecer (2010). Several works will be presented in experiential installations. For example, visitors recline on specially designed couches to experience the hypnotic animated patterns of Firmament (2001), a 16-foot-diameter, ceiling-mounted light sculpture.
Villareal’s work bridges state-of-the-art technology with both established art historical precedents and trends in the broader contemporary-art world. His original programming is based on John Conway’s Game of Life, a mathematical model that simulates how cells live, die, and multiply. The programming both instructs the lights and allows for an element of chance: using computer technology and mathematical rules to activate his artworks, he demonstrates the capacity of clearly defined systems to generate unpredictable outcomes.
At the same time, Villareal’s work can be firmly situated within the continuum of modern art. For example, his sculptures show affinity with 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 movement. Rather than using acrylic 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 structure underlying his art--the coded system of rules that determine the behavior of light--as relating most closely to Sol LeWitt’s conceptual wall drawings, which are similarly based on a pre-determined set of guidelines.
Although influenced by established trends in the art world, Villareal ultimately presents a new vision of art that responds and relates to the innovations of the twenty-first century and reflects our contemporary experience: complex, quickly changing, and fundamentally informed by and integrated with technology.

About the Artist

Born in Albuquerque, NM, in 1967 and raised in El Paso, TX, and in northern Mexico, Leo Villareal began his studies in stage design and art at YaleUniversity, New Haven, CT. He later pursued graduate studies at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, NY, and from 1994 to 1997, worked on cutting-edge virtual reality projects at Paul Allen’s Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto, California. In 1994, Villareal first attended the counterculture festival Burning Man, which inspired him to create work on a larger scale. In 1997, he programmed a 16-light strobe structure that he brought to Burning Man. Originally conceived as a nighttime wayfinding device using pulsing light, the simple light piece was well received and became the precursor to his work in the light medium. 
Recent major commissions include Sky (Tampa) (2010) at the Tampa Museum of Art, FL; Stars (2009) at the Galería Javier López in Madrid; and Multiverse (2008) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS; the Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum in Kagawa, Japan; and other public and private collections.
It was recently announced that Villareal will illuminate San Francisco’s Bay Bridge in a major light sculpture 1.5 miles wide and 500 feet high. The work, titled The Bay Lights, is a project of Illuminate the Arts. It celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge and will be on view for two years beginning in early 2013.

Exhibition Catalog

A full-color catalog accompanies the exhibition. This large-format, hardcover publication, co-published by the San Jose Museum of Art and Hatje Cantz Verlag (Ostfildern, Germany), is available at the Museum Store.

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.

Related Programming

Saturday, September 8 • 7-8 pm 
Animating Light: A Presentation by JoAnne Northrup
New York-based light sculptor Leo Villareal is the most prominent light artist of his generation. Leo Villareal exhibition curator JoAnne Northrup will describe the progression of the artist’s career and place his work within the context of art history. Free for museum members; non-members pay $10 (MMoCA Nights admission).

Friday, September 14 • 6:30-7 pm
Substantiation: Leo Villareal­A Talk by Michael Jay McClure
Join Michael Jay McClure as he discusses the work of Leo Villareal as the latest provocation in a long-standing conversation within the field of contemporary art. Central to this debate, says McClure, is the question: “What are we to do when a work of art becomes immaterial, distributed over a network, and subject to radical change?”
Saturday, November 10 • 1-1:30 pm
Drop-in Tour
Gil Hillman discusses Leo Villareal.
Friday, December 7 • 6:30-9 pm
MMoCA Nights
This special MMoCA Nights will be presented in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arts Institute. The evening will feature a discussion with the institute’s artist-in-residence, Sally Gross. Gross’s students will perform site-responsive performances inspired by Leo Villareal.  

Hours at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are Tuesday–Thursday (noon–5 pm); Friday (noon–8 pm); Saturday (10 am–8 pm); and Sunday (noon–5 pm). The museum is closed on Mondays. 

Admission to exhibitions at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free of charge. MMoCA is supported through memberships and through generous contributions and grants from individuals, corporations, agencies, and foundations. Important support is also generated through auxiliary group programs; special events; rental of the museum’s lobby, lecture hall, and rooftop garden; and sales through the Museum Store.

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