Leo Villareal has been described as “the real painter of light,” an apt description for an artist whose glimmering LED (light emitting diode) sculptures and installations have enthralled millions internationally, including thousands right here in New Haven.
A 1990 graduate of Yale with a degree in sculpture, Villareal was back in town last week to deliver his “Animating Light” lecture at Shefield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, part of the Victor M. Tyler Distinguished Lectureship in Engineering series at Yale.
Before the lecture, Villareal met with engineering students and faculty at the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design (CEID), part of the School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS), for a roundtable discussion. Villareal spoke informally about his work and listened to engineering students discuss the creation of their own intriguing project, a 24,000 LED programmable installation whose panels cover part of a wall and ceiling at the new cafe “Ground” at Yale’s Becton Center.
The high tech lighting installation offers a unique sensory experience, bridging engineering and science with elements of art structure; color, light, shape, and movement, and is capable of displaying a vast array of abstract and representational imagery, including video. The fusion of technology and aesthetics can be appreciated solely as a work of art, but students and teachers are still mining the engineering possibilities and applications of their creation. Villareal said he was “happy to see an installation, here, that is open to so many merging technologies.”
In 2004,Villareal was commissioned by the nascent Site Projects, a New Haven organization bringing in world-class artists for art creation in public spaces. Some of the pieces have been temporal in nature, as in the recent Night Rainbow by artist Yvette Mattern, whose rainbow-colored laser projections spanned the New Haven sky in celebration of New Havenʼs 375th anniversary. Other pieces, like Felice Variniʼs Square with Four Circles at Temple Plaza, have enjoyed greater longevity.
Villarealʼs 6 x 25 foot light installation “Chasing Rainbows” in 2004 was Site Projectʼs inaugural exhibition piece, presented as the opening event for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas that year. The art piece lit up a portion of the New Haven green for seven weeks, and afterward was displayed at Yaleʼs Repertory Plaza.
In explaining his design approach to complex pieces, Villareal says that he is interested in the idea of emergent behavior; he never has a preconceived notion of what his work is going to be, but sets up the conditions that allow things to happen.
This approach is in keeping with the work of British mathematician John Conway and his “Game of Life,” a simulation game based on cellular automata. Villareal has credited Conway with inspiring many aspects of his work. It was also an ephiphany realized at Nevadaʼs annual Burning Man Festival that opened up the artistic potential of LED sculpture for Villareal. His creation of a simple utilitarian light sign mounted on top of his vehicle allowed him to find his way back to base through the thick crowds, but also set him on a path of discovery that continues today.
Villareal’s early works and ideas have evolved, in some cases, to rival in their monumentality the environmental works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, known for encircling Islands and bridging chasms with a variety of materials. Villarealʼs largest piece is a marvel of technological, artistic and environmental synthesis. “The Bay Lights,” completed just over a year ago, is an installation stretching up and across the expanse of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The piece required 25,000 LEDs, and deft logistical coordination with local and federal governments, as well as with installation crews who worked in challenging conditions to install the 1.8 miles of wiring and lights. The kinetic light sculpture has become a destination, a vibrant attraction pumping millions of dollars into the local economy as it inspires and delights.
Throughout his lecture, Villareal touched upon many other notable projects: “Hive” at the Bleeker Street subway station, “Cylinder,” Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York, “Cosmos,” his homage to astronomer Carl Sagan at the Johnson Museum at Cornell University, and “Multiverse” at the National Gallery of Art.
In her introduction of Villareal at the much anticipated lecture, T. Kyle Vanderlick, dean of SEAS, described engineering as “the bridge between Science and the Humanities.” It is a notion embodied in the light installation at Ground cafe, but also in the work of Villareal, who as an artist, continues to push that bridge of possibilities.