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“Leo Villareal:

Digital Light Sculpture”

At Conner Contemporary Art to Dec. 14

The overall timeline of ’60s art history is pretty well-established: color-field, pop, minimalism, conceptualism. All these genres, in fact, overlapped, but things really got hairy toward the end of the decade. Before everyone just gave up and declared the ’70s the age of pluralism, a number of diverse specialties jockeyed for position as the art most germane to the time: performance, video, earthworks, photorealism, op. The first three have generally maintained their long-term credibility, the fourth lost it but never went away for a certain type of buyer, and the last has recently returned to favor after a long exile.

Missing from the roster is light art, which after a brief, intense flowering came to suffer both from its proximity to op (under which rubric it receives almost subliminal mention in the sixth edition of Janson) and from a hybrid lineage that includes kinetic sculpture, commercial signage, and getting baked. For a while, valiant attempts were made to incorporate it into the canon, and any reasonably comprehensive university library will contain surveys of light in art that begin with the tenebrosity of Caravaggio and end with the fragmentary glow of Chryssa—assuming the books haven’t been squired off to long-term storage. Critic Willoughby Sharp hijacked the term “Luminism” for the new art, but it was soon returned to Fitz Hugh Lane and Martin Johnson Heade.

It’s been a long slide for the bright stuff since. The direct physicality of the retinal response proved a problem for writers who objected to opticality’s short-circuiting of a more considered way of looking. Neon became permissible when actual and conceptual, as with Joseph Kosuth, or—to a considerably lesser degree—depicted and photorealistic, as with Robert Cottingham. But otherwise it succumbed to gimmickry, eventually coming to rest at schlock-mop venues such as Zenith Gallery with the likes of Craig Kraft, who is to Bruce Nauman as Don Johnson is to Immanuel Kant. And once one-man industry Thomas Kinkade (now faltering, thank God) tapped into the cozy market of collectibles fiends by christening himself the Painter of Light™, even the most tradition-bound deployment of luminosity was rendered suspect.

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But lately, ambitious light art of the plug-in variety has seen a resurgence, even as it retains a populist touch. Tribute in Light, an installation of twin columns of xenon beams by a multidisciplinary team including artists Julian LaVerdiere and Paul Myoda, was judged an appropriate memorial for the World Trade Center site. LaVerdiere’s work is also appearing in “Light x Eight: The Hanukkah Project 2002,” the third of the Jewish Museum’s biennial shows in which one festival of lights pays tribute to another. And for the latest installment of the annual “Holiday Light Shows” in Grand Central Terminal, Creative Time, the New York nonprofit group partly responsible for Tribute in Light, selected a half-dozen video works to be projected onto the station’s majestic teal vault.

Participating in both seasonal exhibitions is New Yorker Leo Villareal, whose installation of new work at Conner Contemporary Art is probably the most seductive show in town. Villareal’s métier is billed as “digital light sculpture,” but his computer-sequenced light boxes, most of them wall-hung, could as readily be thought of as animated paintings.

Animation is a dicey prospect in relation to abstraction. The trick is not to come off as meretricious or crypto-figurative. One of the reasons Dan Flavin is considered a (sage and serious) minimalist rather than a (hippy-dippy) light artist—despite an outrageously romantic taste in subtitles—is that his sculptures never reach for the off switch. Their steady, at times headache-inducing fluorescence is as unbending a formal element as a square of Plexiglas in a Donald Judd. Then there’s the issue of pacing: Too slow and there’s a risk of being boring; too fast and the effect can be nerve-racking. (The less coherent efforts of hand-painted-film pioneer Stan Brakhage, for example, can make you feel as though your mind had a 24-frame-per-second stutter.)

Villareal’s work is a marvel of pacing and taste, lulling but not soporific, fuguelike rather than repetitious. Sink into one of the amorphous couches at Conner and forget about the time, for while the light patterns unfold in the fourth dimension, they also annihilate it. In this, the show is akin to the exhibitions Brian Eno did in the mid-’80s, in which colored light played slowly over maquette-ish abstract sculptures; when I saw his “Crystals” in Rome, I looked down at my watch after what seemed like 15 minutes, only to find an hour and a half had slipped by. Similarly, although I’ve probably spent about four hours with the six Villareals at Conner, I feel as though I’ve just started looking.

Sunburst is a shallow cylinder of white Plexiglas, 5 feet in diameter, containing 80 red-orange 11-watt incandescent bulbs. They are arranged in four concentric rings corresponding to the first four multiples of eight: 8, 16, 24, 32. Simply by switching individual bulbs on and off, Villareal creates a range of motion. Triangles and radial arms sweep around the dial; inner rings shine on dark outer ones, and vice versa. Every time a dim bulb is hit by the light from a neighbor, a shadow is cast, images accrue, and more concrete counterparts are vaguely implied—dividing cell, magnetic field, Aztec calendar, roulette wheel—only to vanish as soon as they’re glimpsed. If you’ve ever been entranced by those strings of Christmas lights that hang as purchased in the windows of Chinese restaurants, the tiny bulbs never removed from the plastic circles they were packed into at the factory, you know the appeal—and Villareal will spoil it for you. Now that I’ve seen Sunburst, dissatisfaction is setting in toward the Merrybrite 150 Ultimate Super Bright Light Set With Memory I picked up for my office several years ago. It seems a little too eager, and it’s starting to look kind of punk.

With their clocklike symmetries and relatively primitive monochromatic light sources, Sunburst and two smaller Bulbox pieces—one a frenetic square, another a slow-glowing circle—look back to the work of Howard Jones (the participant in the Walker Art Center’s 1967 “Light/Motion/Space” exhibition, not the synth wiz behind Human’s Lib). The anchor of the current show, Lightscape, avails itself of more hi-tech arrays of red, green, and blue LEDs, capable of generating millions of colors. Having appeared in an earlier incarnation as a ceiling piece, it now hangs

on the wall, 11 feet wide by 7 feet, 8 inches high, a skinlike fabric

diffusing the sharp light of the thousands of diodes into fuzzy ovals, bars, and grids.

At times, the shapes pulsate discretely; at others, they bleed together, changing color imperceptibly until they arrive at drastically different hues. There are zigzags, lattices, and nested squares; crosses, stripes, and beams, all based on underlying arrangements of horizontal and vertical lines. Occasionally a blazing red monochrome will swell from the scrim, only to dissolve almost without pause. Darkness and light are rearranged in an ever-changing sequence of pushes and pulls, and diagonal grids are achieved by optical illusion. Beauty is constantly being created and destroyed, only to recur in altered form. With the randomizations of Villareal’s programming keeping the scene fresh, it’s like a slow-motion game of three-card monte that still takes you every time.

Like Lightscape, Hex3 plays nearly infinite variations on an underlying structural theme. This time, inside a cylindrical enclosure 3 feet across, six strips of LEDs are arranged into a regular hexagon, with six more running from the vertexes to the center, dividing the figure into six equilateral triangles and creating an axonometric projection of a cube. Color shifts break the structure apart and reassemble it again. Symbols are provoked from the geometry: asterisk, peace sign, triskelion. With its evocation of the permutations of Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cube series, the piece pushes rationality to the fore.

The scale of Lightscape is echoed in Strobe Matrix, which can be seen only from outside the building and only in the evening. Inside, the relays that trigger the 45 white strobes chatter like a swarm of cicadas. The noise actually meshes nicely with ambient soundtracks by James Healy and Jhno, which, although they could stand to be a touch more Eno, a tad less Enya, enhance rather than obtrude, as, say, Aphex Twin would. Strobe Matrix shuts out natural light, dimming the gallery and setting the stage for the other pieces. From the street, it’s an abstract sign in the window, its marching arrows occasionally breaking ranks for a ricocheting homage to Pong.

At Grand Central, Villareal’s work has been subsumed into what corporate sponsor Häagen-Dazs calls its “Art of Pure Pleasure” initiative, and that title gives as good an indication as any of why light art fell out of favor in the first place. Three decades ago, anything that indulged an appetite for raw perception, reflection be damned, was bound to lose out as tastes turned to the pencil-line-and-presstype aesthetic of conceptualism and visuality fell to criticality.

In his “Light/Motion/Space” catalog essay, Sharp claimed that kinetic art, including its Luminist subset, “strives for effect, not meaning.” In Villareal’s case, that still is true, and it’s no accident that the time seems right for him now that we’ve virtually exhausted ourselves on significance. Sharp closed with a defense of the genre in the face of charges of underrealization, “thinness of effect,” and the dominance of other media, averring that the work was still in the “experimental” stage. For once, with artists’ hands tied by the limits of technology, the term seemed justified. Thirty-five years later, a host of technical problems have been solved and we hold no expectation of a single art form’s reigning triumphant. What is truly new about a work such as Lightscape is that artistic vision is no longer at the mercy of the circuitry that brings it into being. CP