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Leo Villareal at Pace Gallery, London UK

Leo Villareal, Optical Machine I, 2019, LEDs, custom software, electrical hardware, steel, 5' 3" × 9' 6" × 3" (160 cm × 289.6 cm × 7.6 cm), Edition of 5 © Leo Villareal, photo copyright Damian Griffiths

Leo Villareal

Pace Gallery (London)

November 22, 2019 - January 18, 2020

By BRIAN NG, November 2019

Leo Villareal will soon be as recognized a name as Renzo Piano on the lips of Londoners: his (and London’s) largest artwork to date, Illuminated River, will be the world’s longest, too, when it is completed in a few years’ time — 14 of London’s most central bridges will be lit with Villareal’s lighting installations. His latest exhibition at the Pace Gallery (running from 22 November to 18 January) serves almost as an introduction for him to the city.

The exhibition is made up of, predictably, LED screens with starburst lighting — the comparison to stars is undeniable — arranged in a dark room (duh), with a central wall being temporarily constructed in the middle of the gallery, on which hangs Detector on the side facing the entering viewer, and Optical Machine I and Optical Machine II on the other. The names aren’t that important, to be honest: All the works are LED screens with pixels lighting in accordance with the way Villareal has programmed the algorithms. If anything, they’re variations on a theme — yet another way Villareal nods to the traditions of yore; he uses multiple triptychs in this exhibition for the same reason. 

Artist Leo Villareal photo copyright Damian Griffiths

Villareal started off in this medium when he made a crude version of his current artworks for Burning Man — he needed a landmark so that he could find his van on the playa, so he strung a few bulbs on to a wooden grid, and added some basic programming to make them flash to some predetermined sequence (though there was no significance of the sequence, according to him). These few bulbs eventually grew to what his works are these days: LED screens measuring 10’ 6” x 37’ 10” (in the case of Detector, the largest work on display), and, of course, the bridges that span the lifeblood of London.

Installation view, Leo Villareal, courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery London UK, photo copyright Damian Griffiths

His use of LED screens has meant the dots of light are very-much visible pixels, pixels that shudder and jitter across the screens if they move along a diagonal that is not far from the vertical or horizontal axis. The kaleidoscopes of light are restricted to the limitations of this digital canvas, a fact Villareal relishes (there is one work, Corona, sequestered in a different room, that is played over three adjoining vertical OLED screens, which is not constrained by this though). It does make you wonder about how these artworks will be able to be maintained in the future — one of the hardest parts of art conservation is the ability to continue to play artworks that have been created on now-obsolete equipment, such as cassette tapes and floppy disks. The bridges will last for ten years, and while these LED screens only really need a power source to run, how long will they last, and will they be able to be replaced in the future, or will we have to make do with more seamless technology? When the limitations of the medium are integral to how an artist approaches their work, what constitutes authenticity in the future? 

Artist Leo Villareal, photo copyright Damian Griffiths

A line introducing his work in the press release says it is “firmly rooted in abstraction”, which I take issue with. I take issue with it because he doesn’t really take what we see around us and then removes and adds shapes to it; he is creating from the beginning. If you think about it, the essence of his work is binary: each point is either on or off, a one or a zero. Illuminated River may use colored lights, but with works being shown by Pace are all monochromatic. When you watch them, it’s as if you are watching the universe being born each time the work “resets” (quotation marks because they don’t reset to nothing, but simply create another starting point that will interact with what’s already going on); the work builds upon itself (as opposed to objects and phenomena around us) in these cases, given simple instructions as to how to begin — Villareal has said he uses basic laws of physics and biology to guide his installations. He isn’t simply abstracting from life, he is creating new life from the same rules.

As a result of the fact his works are driven by algorithms, and are not programmed to follow certain choreographies, they feed very much into the notion of instantaneous art; each viewer not only sees a different piece of artwork because of individual perception, but because whatever you see, and the duration you see it, will be unique to you as the viewer. You can’t help but stare, trying to figure out what rules govern each piece, like you’re trying to decipher one of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, or when staring at your phone screen with your bedroom lights off. 

This year is the 50th anniversary of humans walking on the moon, and our continuous fascination with the cosmos is definitely part of why we are so absorbed with Villareal’s works; even those who aren’t looking for the pattern are still entranced. We, as humans, are always looking for the signal among the noise, the reason for why anything happens. Villareal’s light installations may very well try to illuminate that. WM


Brian Ng

Brian Ng is a writer, originally from New Zealand, and is currently based in London.

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