If you have driven across the Bay Bridge, you have seen Leo Villareal's large-scale, site-specific "The Bay Lights." Installed in 2013, it consists of 25,000 LED lights installed on the span that continuously change, thanks to a custom software design.
Further down on the Peninsula, Villareal was chosen as part of the public art program at the new Stanford Hospital. His "Buckyball," from 2019, is sited at the entrance of the complex and offers a non-repeating sequence of colors and patterns in a sculpture of nested spheres.
But Villareal also works in smaller, gallery-scale editions, as can be seen in "Harmony of the Spheres," his new exhibition at Pace Gallery in Palo Alto that is now on view until Oct. 10. (The show, which was originally scheduled to be displayed in early spring, was put on hold due to the pandemic.)
There is some irony that Villareal's small-screen work is on view at a time when our lives are so focused around computer screens, but don't let that dissuade you from visiting the gallery. This is an art form that must be seen and experienced in person and, after months of online only art, offers a welcome change. Villareal's merging of art and technology is always impressive, mesmerizing — and an antidote to the preponderance of politics, anger, negativity and despair that seems to pervade cyberspace at the moment.
"Leo is a beloved figure in the Bay Area, and we are thrilled to present his work in the gallery," said Pace President Elizabeth Sullivan.
The exhibition consists of 11 screens, of various sizes. As always, the Pace installation team has found a way to present the works in a dramatic and advantageous way. The gallery is sectioned into three zones, with two walls framing the largest piece, "Musica Universalis" in the rear of the gallery space. The walls have been painted a dark gray/black, an effective and neutral background for the glowing LEDs in each piece. With no labels or sound except for the gentle hum of the monitors, there is an almost sacred, meditative ambience. And since there will be timed admission to the gallery, odds are that visitors will have a quiet and contemplative experience.
Villareal, who holds an undergraduate degree in sculpture from Yale University and a graduate degree from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, found his way to working with light in a serendipitous way. While attending the Burning Man Festival in 1997, he became lost in the desert. Realizing that a large light affixed to his tent would help him find his way, he created a glowing sculptural form. He began working solely with light but added a crucial component — software code. In an email interview, he explained, "The epiphany I had was connecting software and light. To add software and code to that and to start to sequence the light was very profound, but it took me many years to get there."
Eight of the pieces are part of the artist's "Instance" series and are, according to gallery information, "Singular works, in their digital and physical forms, that become malleable synchronies wherein the possibility of order, however fleeting and subtle, appears visually across the units before gradually dissipating into a chaotic state."
This translates to a nonstop sequence of patterns and shapes that move, evolve and dance in unpredictable but fascinating ways. Impose upon them what references you like: exploding planets, shooting stars, sun bursts, fireworks or glitter shot from a cannon. The longer you watch, the more things change and yet it is not frenetic or nerve-wracking. As Villareal described it, "My work is very much for humans. It goes beyond the simple combination of software and LEDs. Through my process, I have found a way to tap into something deeper that elicits a sense of wonder and awe in an audience. It feels primal and elemental."
The artist has also said that his light work is like a "communal campfire." You will wish that you could set up a chair and spend a lot of time in front of "Musica Universalis." It dominates the gallery with its size and the boldness of its transformations. The press release describes this piece as "referencing an ancient philosophical concept that regards proportions in the movements of celestial bodies as a form of music which is not audible but rather a harmonic and mathematical exploration of orbital resonance." Does one need to know that in order to be impressed and captivated by this piece? Definitely not. Relax and enjoy the show.
Pace is open to the public by reservation only, with a limited number per hour. To make a reservation, visit pacegallery.com.
This article was originally published on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.