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'Photoshop in real time'
Leo Villareal's light sculptures are visual centerpiece of PULSE
Leo Villareal at the Jepson Center, with new Telfair Museums Director Lisa Grove

We know what you’re thinking: If I wanted to see a colorful light show, I’d drive around Gordonston one night at Christmastime. Think again.

Leo Villareal’s light installations — he refers to them primarily as sculptures “because these pieces aren’t just about the pieces themselves, but about the way they fit into the entire room” — are at the very cutting edge of art, technology, motion, and color.

He’s displayed them at the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the LA Museum of Contemporary Art, and is working on one right now which will adorn the Bay Bridge in San Francisco Bay.

His exhibit at the Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center for the Arts is a centerpiece of this year’s PULSE Festival. Villareal gives a talk this Mon., Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Jepson.

Villareal doesn’t buy his lights at Walmart or Target. Some of the LEDs he uses — by the many thousands — are the size of a grain of rice, and are meticulously crafted at his own lab for each installation. The precision, microcomputer control of each light’s output can generate over 250 levels of brightness per bulb, and 16 million different color possibilities.
“We’re custom–making things all the time,” he says. “It’s not off–the–shelf technology.”

Kinetic in nature, his works are constantly shape–shifting and must be seen, watched, experienced. They never do the same thing twice — lights swirling in concert, sometimes following rigid geometric forms, other times taking on a nearly lyric quality, mimicking the sky and stars and light playing on the clouds.

“It’s a process of creating the conditions for something to happen. I don’t have everything mapped out in advance,” Villareal explained during a recent docent training session at the Jepson.

“When something compelling happens, I capture it and record it. So it’s a process of harvesting these moments as an editor,” he says.

“I have a whole series of tools that I use to layer and put them together. I can change the tempo, change the brightness, subtract layers. There’s a real process of refinement.”

There’s an in point and an out point with each light sculpture, “but you never see the exact same progression twice. It’s not being generated on the fly. I don’t trust the computer to make it look good all the time!” he says.

“It’s not like a video loop where you see the same three minutes again and again. I have very precise control over the speed and brightness. It’s like Photoshop in real time.”

The New Mexico–born, Texas–bred artist’s journey into the convergence of art and technology began with undergraduate work in sculpture at Yale University. In the early ‘90s, he had a conversion experience of sorts.

“Right around then, computers and technology really got interesting. Photoshop was just coming out. There was this buzz about virtual reality, and I found those tools very attractive,” Villareal says.

“So I ended up going to a graduate telecommunications program at NYU. This was very early on, there was no real web at that point, if you can imagine. It was a collection of real mad scientist types who were using this technology.”

After graduation, Villareal went to work at Interval Research, an R&D lab in Palo Alto, Calif., started by Paul Allen, co–founder of Microsoft.

“We had a very open–ended mission,” Villareal remembers. “We were to look into the future and see would it would be. It was a mix of artists, musicians, designers, engineers, and software people — a really wonderful experience.”

Villareal created his first light sculpture in 1997, without really knowing it. A regular attendee at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, Villareal says in those early days before the Festival became such a huge draw, “it was very easy to get lost out there in the desert. So I decided to do something about it, and came up with this beacon. I realized later that it was actually a very interesting piece of artwork.”

Despite his high–tech experience, “I didn’t need all these high–resolution displays and virtual reality and all those sorts of things to transport people. It was just 16 strobe lights turning off and on. I went down to the lowest level of code, all zeros and ones.”

You can see that first sculpture on display at the Jepson. Indeed, despite the non–linear nature of Villareal’s work itself, the PULSE exhibit is a chronicle of sorts.

“This is the fourth stop of this exhibition. It started in San Jose,” he says. “It’s always interesting to see how it changes with each installation. Each space is different.”

Villareal describes a work called “Red Light:”

“It’s a portrait of a set of rules that a mathematician named John Conway came up with in the ‘70s, called ‘The Game of Life.’ You’d swear you were looking into a microscope at something occurring in nature, just emerging out of a set of numbers and a very simple set of rules.”

On “Open Air":

“This is just six light bulbs with varying colors. Very simple. It feels like it’s communicating. Your brain is hard–coded to recognize certain patterns. This is about presenting a very small amount of information and you build up a model in your head as you look at it. Abstraction is key to my work, and my work’s also all about time.”

On “Nightscape:”

“This is the first time I used LEDs. One of the most amazing things you can do with LEDs is mix color. So we have red green and blue, three primary colors. By blending those colors you can make 16 million possible variations. It took me awhile to wrap my head around this.”

Villareal’s current main project is an installation on the west span of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco to mark the monument’s 75th anniversary, featuring over 25,000 LED lights. Learn more at

Most of the actual installation has to be done by state employees trained and insured to do such a job.

“It’s a very dangerous environment,” says Villareal. “They let me do a cable walk a few weeks ago up on the very top of the bridge, harnessed in. I was 525 feet over the water, with 250 feet down to traffic. I gained a new respect for the people who work on the bridge every day.” 

Leo Villareal @ PULSE Festival

When & Where: Villareal speaks Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. in a member’s lecture at the Jepson Center; following is a public reception to mark the opening of PULSE. The Villareal exhibit is up through June at the Jepson.

Cost: Free and open to the public