LEO VILLAREALby Taney Roniger
Pace Gallery | May 4 – August 11, 2017
Phototropic creatures that we are, we’re all beguiled by bright lights—especially when there are many of them and they move, forming dazzling arrays of pyrotechnic splendor. Such is both the blessing and the curse of Leo Villareal, whose monumental LED works have made him one of the most celebrated—and most commissioned—light artists of our time. While one cannot but be entranced by his algorithmic displays, the seduction of the light often eclipses the work’s more substantive dimensions. But in his new show at Pace—his first with the gallery—Villareal delivers a tour de force that transcends the work’s optical appeal, offering a poetic meditation on the inner workings of nature.
Near the gallery’s entrance, three wall-mounted works featuring exposed strips of LEDs establish a mood of hushed silence, preparing one for what lies beyond. Scaled to the human body, the pieces glow and flicker in the dimmed light of the space, their arrays forming abstract patterns that shift in seamless progressions. Although square in format and redolent of human facture, the Cloud Drawings (2017) are tuned to the pulse of nature: irregular bands suggestive of migrating wildlife become drifting amoebae, swarms of fireflies, clusters of cumulus clouds, and rippling water, all of it unfolding at a tempo resonant with one’s breath. As with all of Villareal’s work, one never sees the same progression twice; while the sequences themselves are fixed, the order in which they play out is random by design.
In the second room, we’re met with a massive array of LED-bearing rods suspended from the gallery’s vaulted ceiling, which form a descending cascade of particulate light. Dwarfed by the structure, we gaze up at it from below as if submerged in the sea. With its lights firing in orchestrated rhythms, it might be some kind of aquatic superorganism communicating in a pattern language we know only viscerally. But as organic as its sequences of emissions may be, Ellipse (2017) remains resolutely mechanical; cold and rigid, the structure makes no pretense about its technological origin.
If the first and second rooms have us rooted in the earthly, the next takes us into the realm of the galactic with a dramatic shift in tone. The space now fully dark, five portal-like monitors give witness to a cosmic drama enacted across their screens. Radiating from the center of each piece, impossibly dense fields of luminescent particles burst, spiral outward, and dissolve into the void, sometimes forming filament-like gliders that fire erratically before disappearing. Enthralling in their complexity, the Particle Fields (2017) evoke both the incomprehensible vastness of deep space and the mysterious mechanisms of the quantum world, those two realms of consummate otherness utterly inapprehensible to our senses. But while the worlds to which they allude are wholly unfamiliar, the rhythmic movements of the particles and the geometry of their structures resonate deeply.
Devoid of visible hardware and betraying no hint of the source of its light, the fourth and final room is the first to negate all evidence of human presence. Here, across the pitch-black walls of a hexagonal alcove, a veil-like field of what must be billions of particles undulates across six screens to form a single panoramic image. Breathtakingly beautiful to behold, the swarming masses of particles soar and interpenetrate to a barely perceptible sonic vibration issuing from we know not where. Much like that of one’s own blood pumping, the sound turns the mind inward, and slowly it occurs to us that we might be looking at ourselves: at the flux and flow of our own consciousness. It’s a thrilling recognition, and one that induces a felt sense of belonging to the world. If this is the shape of consciousness, one can hardly fail to notice the deep morphological resonance with the patterns that animate the material world.
If the universal principles immanent in nature are what Villareal’s work makes visible, the means by which it does so give the work a provocative implication. Ultimately, Villareal’s medium is not so much light but code: the invisible algorithms that give life to the otherwise cold and soulless hardware. One of the most profound revelations of digital technology has been that even simple sets of rules elicited by simple yes/no responses can give rise to patterns of astonishing complexity. That those patterns often bear an uncanny resemblance to the forms we see in nature is even more suggestive, as it points to the ontological primacy of information. Perhaps the deep allure of Villareal’s work isn’t the light at all, but the fact that the dynamic patterns in which it pulses, flickers, and glows echo the nature of the very ground of being.
TANEY RONIGER is an artist, writer, and frequent Rail contributor.