01SJ, 2010  and Leo Villareal

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

Leo Villareal’s Flag of lights draws viewers from outside into the San Jose Musuem of Art

The San Jose Museum of Art has not failed to deliver in a big way when it comes to this San Jose art biennale that is 01SJ 2010.  In artist Leo Villareal’s first museum survey show, 20 major light sculptures are presented and cataloged.  Viewers’ highest expectations are met with an exceptional experience of spiritual and transformative participation.  The scale, color, subliminal suggestions and overt effects are quite magnificent. In the subdued light of the Museum, the many installations blaze with color, energy, shifting and changing patterns and even sound programs that accompany and add to the extraordinary if not extra-terrestrial experience.  Contrary to any possibility that the work would be superficial or over-the-top, I found it beautiful, inspiring and endlessly moving.

Influenced by artists like Dan Flavin and James Turrell, Villareal makes light and reference to the night sky more than entertainment for all that it is still spectacle.  In Firmament, (2001) viewers enter an entirely black room where they recline along the exterior perimeter in black specially designed “zero gravity” sofas that direct their vision to the ceiling.  Above, a bank of white strobes in concentric circles produce endlessly mutating effects that suggest alien craft about to land or ascend, a celestial vortex of light, perhaps coded messages and certainly the eternally human pursuit of unity with the universe.  Of course, the Roden Crater comes to mind.


The artist received a BA in sculpture at Yale and went on to graduate school at NYU’s Tisch School of Visual Arts.  Villareal became involved in writing his own code for his light works after the convergence of two importance West Coast experiences.  First, as a graduate student he became involved in a workshop where participants explored technology and computers as artistic tools.  Then, after finding himself lost on the Playa at night at Burning Man, he envisioned his first (1997) light work as a beacon for home base.  This piece, relatively simple in its square format and grid of bold lights behind a gray translucent plexiglass, yet eerie and powerful, is included in the exhibition.  It sent Villareal on his continuing path of exploring simple code that allows random and unpredictable sequences of pulses through his light patterns.  He states, “Inspired by mathematician John Conway’s work with cellular automata and the Game of Life, I have sought to create my own set of rules.  Central to the work is the element of chance.  My goal is to create a rich environment in which emergent behavior can occur without a preconceived outcome.”

Leo Villareal may push the boundaries of what is color field imagery or light/color as form, and may indeed make an earlier generation cringe.  It is brave work, yet elegant, and fully in-sinc with the unpredictable aesthetic that Zero1 offers for viewers to contemplate, assimilate.

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