Programming the Cosmos: Leo Villareal at the National Gallery
Hypnotic, mysterious, mesmerizing, cosmic, soothing, ephemeral. . . enlightening. These are some of the sensations that wash over viewers as they encounter Leo Villareal’s Multiverse in the underground concourse between the East and West Buildings of the National Gallery. A computer geek from teen-hood, Villareal harnesses one of the fundamental attributes of the computer—simple rules, complex patterns—to create unique and kenetic light sculptures.
With 41,000 LED bulbs Multiverse is by far Villareal’s most complex work to date. The software he developed for this project generates several different layers of synchronized patterns (Villareal likens what he does to composing music) that alternately shoot in straight lines down the length of the tube, explode in a big bang-like effect, bounce along in ball-shaped clusters, or just pulse. The concourse is a transitional space; its ceiling is oppressively low, the space claustrophobic. Normally it must make for a rather prosaic journey. But whisked along the moving sidewalk under the twinkling stars, one is liberated into the cosmos, living a brief StarTrekian moment. The universe talks to us; we try to decipher its meaning.
While Villareal’s art acknowledges artistic forbearers in Dan Flavin and James Turrell, the underlying concept of his light pieces relates more to Sol LeWitt‘s wall drawings, Agnes Martin‘s grids, and even Peter Halley‘s paintings.
Comments Villareal: “I’m very interested in rules and underlying structures, which all tie in with the code I’m writing. There are things in nature that inspire me, like wave patterns or natural systems that at first glance appear to be very complex, but when I study them further there are simple rules that govern them. That’s what I try to get at in my code—building simple rules that refer to some of these ideas. Laws are another thing I’ve been working on lately. I’m not a physicist, but I use rules to create software and in the software I’m able to play with parameters like gravity, velocity, friction. I’m able to use these parameters and access them as an artist and see what compelling things result.”
Not everyone has been wildly enthusiastic about the project. Some critics feel that Villareal didn’t have enough mature work to warrant membership in the National Gallery club with Picasso, Titian, Rothko and Sol LeWitt. The lack of critical thought surrounding Villareal’s work and the superficiality of the work (technology for technology’s sake, not art’s sake) are other criticisms. Programmers have gone on record as saying that Villareal’s software is pretty basic stuff.
Multiverse may not embody a BIG ART IDEA, but what’s wrong with a little Sybaritic pleasure now and again?