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Leo Villareal; Flag, 2008, 75 x 144 x 4 inches, courtesy of Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York; Photography by James Ewing Photography. Image courtesy of Telfair Museum. 

Although Leo Villareal designed his original light sculpture as a way-finding devise, the self-titled survey of his work urges the viewer to disconnect from the world and lose oneself in the art. Lights pulse, flicker, fade and revive at ever-changing intervals. Villareal is a forefront artist in the light medium, recognized for his sculpture and site-specific, architectural installations. Inspired by Dan Flavin and James Turrell, Villareal’s work is likewise minimalist in approach. His sculptures are visual, but they are not about imagery. To look is not enough. The viewer must watch the lights metamorphose through spectrums and pattern-like evolutions. As they reinvent themselves, the pieces transform atmospheric perspectives, and the viewer’s internal response.

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Leo Villareal; Metatron, 2002, (A.P. ed. 2); Plexiglas, incandescent light bulbs, custom software and electrical hardware; 60 x 60 x 6 inches, courtesy of Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York, Photograph courtesy of the artist via Telfair Museum

This is the first major touring museum survey of Villareal’s work. Primarily comprised of LEDs, Villareal also uses incandescent bulbs and strobe lights in his sculpture. He codes simple, custom software for each piece. These algorithms and kinetic lights become trance-inducing beacons. While almost all of the sculptures are simple shapes and abstract motions, one work depicts a concrete image. Flag (2008, LED tubes, custom software and electrical hardware) is as much a statement on the capabilities of light as Jasper John’s flag paintings are about paint. There are 26 tubes aligned in 13 horizontal rows. Momentarily illuminated as an American flag, the lights scintillate and become three flags, flash and become nonobjective jolts of red, white and blue, roving in and out of the original image. Villareal defragments the symbol. The piece reckons with issues of personal identity, beyond politics, reminding the viewer that an icon is a simplified representation of various experiences, with less emphasis on the sum, and more significance on the converging, individual characteristics.

The lights in each of these 17 works (1997-2010) separate and assemble at spontaneous intervals. Isolated in a subdivision of the gallery is Hive (2007, orange LEDs, wood, custom software and electrical hardware), an overhead installation. Clusters of orange LEDs are interspersed on a square suspended from the ceiling, creating a rain of palpable light. Each unit is a black box of 25 bulbs. They dance at different intervals, buzzing and flickering. Villareal exemplifies the title’s theme in both cause and effect: the countless clusters of lights are one kind of hive that creates another. The resulting atmosphere–festive, social–lures viewers beneath it, like the lights on a nightclub dance floor. That the piece feels like something purposed for a social gathering reflects a motif of emergence–a colony of bees, for example, or the transient, counter-cultural event Burning Man, where Villareal first displayed the precursor works that became his identifying artistic expression.

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Leo Villareal; Big Bang, 2008 (A.P. ed. 3), LEDs, aluminum, custom software and electrical hardware; 59 x 59 x 8 inches, courtesy of Connor Contemporary Art, Washington, DC; Photography by James Ewing Photography. Image courtesy of Telfair Museum

Although repetitive in components, each viewing of this exhibit creates a new experience. Among these works, the viewer is lost and found, lost and found again.

[Leo Villareal is on display at Telfair Museum’s Jepson Center for the Arts through June 3, 2012. 204 W. York Street, Savannah, GA. Telfair.org.]

This post originally appeared on the Savannah Art Map on April 19, 2012

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