In 1994, Leo Villareal was encouraged by some friends to attend Burning Man, the festival around Labor Day every year that celebrates creativity and self-expression in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada.
He got lost.
He also got terrified. The festival was not nearly the size it is now and as he wandered the ancient lake bed he recalled early video games and other computer graphics, brought to mind by the landscape virtually lacking in features. He managed to return to his tent by "relearning to navigate."
In 1997, when Villareal returned to Burning Man, he constructed a wood framework to which he attached 16 strobe lights, programmed to turn on and off in sequence. He mounted it atop his camper and it was visible for miles. It served its purpose, but it did much more. Others were fascinated with it, and Villareal had found his perfect art medium light.
That creation, now covered with plexiglass, is included in "Leo Villareal: Animating Light," the major exhibition on display at the Nevada Museum of Art, through May 22. Twenty installations use strobes, neon, and LED bulbs activated by his own software. Some are peaceful and relaxing, leading to contemplation, others are so vital and active they become riveting for different reasons, and others serve as what the artist himself has called "digital campfires" stare at them long enough and see where your mind goes.
This is definitely an exhibition that strikes everybody differently. Some will be simply perplexed by it, wondering why it's art (of course, leading to the very sort of contemplation Villareal would welcome). Others, of more analytical and even mathematical minds, may want to analyze the algorithms, attempt to see patterns (although the lights most often flash randomly), or figure out the computer programming.
Children, however, are usually just excited by the colors, by the movement, by the imagination. "Diamond Sea," for instance, is a large, reflective surface with undulating light that actually puts you into the work. "Chasing Rainbows" opens to multiple interpretations to explain its title. "Big Bang" is so complex and so unpredictable, using so many colors and so many different movements, it is unlikely to repeat a sequence anytime soon.
And so children are often the best audience for Villareal; they're encouraged on a handout at the museum to "Look" and try to count colors or think of relationships to nature; to "Talk" about what they imagine; to "Think" about what is communicated; and to "Move" by following the patterns with hands.
If you are not one prone to dizziness or any motion disturbance, enter the dark room that houses "Primordial," lie back on one of the big couches under the strobe installation and immerse yourself.
Villareal is noted for his giant installations around the world, most famously the front of the Tampa Museum of Art in Florida and the tunnel that connects the two parts of Washington's National Gallery. He is scheduled soon to do a giant installation to help celebrate the anniversary of the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge and to adorn an airport in Bahrain.
The exhibition is organized by the San Jose Museum of Art and is sponsored by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation, and the Bank of America. It is indicative of the variety of major installations at the museum, following as it does the John James Audubon exhibit and preceding a display of Egyptian antiquities from the Brooklyn Art Museum.
All those flashing, rotating and changing lights are in many ways perfect for Reno, and there will be more than one viewer who thinks of the complex neon (and now LED) installations adorning casinos. Light can indeed by downright hypnotic.
An accompanying exhibition features work by Toni Lowden, a Nevada artist who was challenged by the museum to create a new series of works inspired by the Villareal show. She quickly remembered her studies in cellular biology and saw a connection in his work to the structures and changing of cells. The result is a series of mixed-media paintings with titles like "Nerve Longitudinal Section" and a large tapestry exploring cells and a metaphoric relationship to technology.
LEO VILLAREAL: ANIMATING LIGHT
WHAT: Twenty installations use strobes, neon and LED bulbs activated by the artist's own software. Some are peaceful and relaxing; others, vital and active.
WHERE: The Nevada Museum of Art, 160 W. Liberty St., downtown Reno.
WHEN: Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays.
COST: Every second Saturday features free admission. $10 general, $8 students and seniors, $1 children 6 to 12
INFORMATION: (775) 329-3333, nevadaart.org. Docent tours of the Villareal exhibition are included with admission at 6 p.m. every Thursday (except first Thursdays of each month, which are jazz nights) and 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.