by San Jose Museum of Art, Editor
Foreword by Susan Krane; introduction by Steven B. Johnson; texts by Sara Douglas Hart, Steven B. Johnson, JoAnne Northrup, Michael Rush, and Mark Van Proyen
Hatje Cantz Verlag, Germany, 2010
192 pp., illus. 528 col. Trade, € 45.00
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This lavishly produced, large format, coffee table style book is essentially the catalogue that accompanies the major representative exhibition of Villareal's art. This exhibition has been organised by the San Jose Museum of Art, where it is showing from August 2010 to January 2011. Then it moves on to the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas; and Telfair Museum of Art, Georgia.
Leo Villareal, now 40 years of age, established a significant place in the art world during his 30s. He works exclusively with light. In the early years he used strobe lights and fluorescent tubes with various forms of controllers and rudimentary computer programs. He now works almost entirely with LEDs (light emitting diodes) controlled by sophisticated computer code, which he programs himself, and in some cases, collaborates with other computer programmers. His works vary from small gallery pieces to huge public installations comprising hundreds of thousands of LEDs! The effect of these pieces is simply stunning. As Rush notes, "Villareal conjures the heavens and offers us passage into the fabric of the universe in his increasingly immersive light sculptures." Walking through, Threshold or Multiverse "brings us as close as we can get to walking through the sky" (p. 37).
The book, as you would expect, is full of colour photos and plates. These show finished works in situ, shots of pieces under construction in Villareal's studio, and sequential shots of many of the pieces. These sequences are an attempt to give the reader an idea of just what the dynamic, changing nature of the light sculptures look like in the real. Unfortunately, even this strategy does not do justice to the ever-changing play of light that emanates from the actual sculptures. This is not a criticism of the book; it simply highlights the perennial problems of adequately representing immersive, conceptual, and interactive artwork in the static medium of print. As an example the in situ photograph of the work, Hive looks like a rectangular panel with numerous square orange lights - quite dead. The sequence photos on the following page show just how dynamic and amazing this work is when in action so to speak (Plates 40 - 41).
After the introductory Forward by Susan Krane, there are five essays followed by Plates, Biography & Documentation, and Catalogue of the Exhibition.
1 - Introduction: The Work of Art in the Age of Algorithms Steven B. Johnson
2 - Animating Light JoAnne Northrup
3 - Leo Villareal: Code as Medium Michael Rush
4 - The Cybernetic Construction of Social Space: Leo Villareal and the Disorient Projects at Black Rock City [Burning Man Festival] Mark Van Proyen
5 - Leo Villareal: Play of Brilliants Sara Douglas Hart
JoAnne Northrup is chief curator of the San Jose Gallery, and her essay Animating Light is a detailed study of Villareal's career from his first studies at Yale through to his present highly regarded status as a dedicated, innovative, and important artist.
I particularly enjoyed Rush's illuminating essay, where he discusses the various manifestations of code behind the artworks, both that of Villareal's and other artists who work with light programmed to draw the viewers out of themselves into an ethereal world. Van Proyen, in his essay, discusses the Burning Man Festival and the impact that this has had on the development of Villareal's work. Villareal produces site-specific artworks each year at Burning Man, some of these are then recycled into other works in various locations in America.
The essay Play of Brilliants discusses the relationship of art to architecture, and especially the way Villareal works with architects at the conceptual stage of building design. This results in art that is not just a decoration, in or on the building, but an integral part of dynamics of the architectural impact. A fantastic example of this collaboration is evident in Sky, Villareal's work as part of the building at Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Florida (p. 58 Figure 40).
One aspect of Villareal's work that is not discussed by the contributors to this catalogue is the mystical quality, or at least, allusion to spiritual/astral worlds that many of Villareal's works evoke. I am not sure that these qualities are intended by Villareal, but they are there, nonetheless! Threshold a wall of ethereal coloured light is one good example of this (p. 36). Still, the work Joshua Tree of Life in the Californian desert, indicates that Villareal is familiar with the Kabbalah (concerning the mystical aspects of Judaism) - perhaps this is an aspect of his work that could be explored further.
This is a beautiful and interesting book, and I suggest would be a great addition to the libraries of all those interested in contemporary art and architecture, and especially artists that use computer code to control immersive and interactive sculpture.