In Conversation with Leo Villareal cover photo


In Conversation with Leo Villareal

by Jeff Davis

Leo Villareal is an NYC-based artist who makes light sculptures with computational elements. He is represented by Pace Gallery and is known for creating large-scale, site-specific artworks such as The Bay Lights in San Francisco and Illuminated River in London. Villareal’s work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, among others. I had the privilege of speaking with Leo about his distinguished artistic career and his upcoming Art Blocks project Cosmic Reef.
Jeff Davis: I’m a long-time admirer of your work, so it’s great to have an opportunity to speak with you about your background. How did you first get into making art?
Leo Villareal: I took my first installation sculpture class in college and realized I wanted to be an artist. Previously I had been designing sets and studying Art History. The idea that I could create an environment with light, sound, and video was fascinating to me. After college, I saw the work of James Turrell and Dan Flavin. I realized art could be much more stripped down than I had previously considered.
JD: What drew you to incorporate technology into your artwork?
LV: My dad gave me an Apple II+ when I was 13, and I grew up with an awareness of computers. I graduated from college in 1990, the same year Adobe Photoshop was launched. There was also a lot of buzz about virtual reality even then. These new tools intrigued me and led me to the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU where I deeply immersed myself in all sorts of tech. I always knew I wanted to use these tools as an artist. It took me many years to find my medium. In 1997 I connected software and light for the first time. I created a beacon with 16 strobe lights that I programmed with a Basic Stamp microcontroller. Zero was off and one was on. What started as a simple wayfinding device turned out to be a major epiphany. The combination of software, light, and space crystalized into what then became my medium.
Leo Villareal, Supercluster, 2003..jpeg
Leo Villareal, Supercluster, 2003.
JD: That’s great, I had an Apple IIe growing up, and it definitely planted the seed for my technology curiosity as well. After that realization, how did your creative practice evolve?
LV: I established my studio in New York City in 1998. I started having studio visits which lead to group shows then solo shows. In 2003, I had a chance to do my first public artwork, Supercluster on the scaffolding covering the facade of MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. It was thrilling to make a work that the public could interact and respond to. This represented the start of my work in site specific public art. I have really enjoyed working with architects and urban planners on ways of activating space. My work that utilizes NFTs represents yet another shift. I look forward to connecting with a new audience in a way that has not been previously possible. Having a way of distributing purely digital work is incredibly exciting and opens up all sorts of possibilities.
JD: Yes, it’s been a pleasure to be able to connect with you at various events these last few months. Do you have any recent accomplishments you’d like to share?
LV: In 2013, I launched The Bay Lights in San Francisco which added 25,000 white LED nodes to the 1.8 mile long western span of the bridge. In 2021, I completed nine bridges in London over the Thames for a project called Illuminated River. It’s challenging to work on monumental city scaled projects but well worth it when I think about the hundreds of millions of people who will see and interact with these artworks.
JD: Those are truly monumental works, which is what makes us so excited for your Art Blocks project. What was the inspiration behind Cosmic Reef?
LV: My Art Blocks project grew organically. It started out with a lot of learning about what’s possible in a browser and a deep dive into Three.js. We started with the simplest of forms—spheres—and began to see what was possible in animating these forms. I am inspired by things I see in nature. I am always thinking about what underlying structures are at work. How can I make patterns that simulate the ripple of waves or the colors of a sunset? I am very intrigued by how very complex things can actually be described with a very simple program. I am also interested in the universal human responses to such systems. For Cosmic Reef, I wanted to create a completely new artwork made specifically for the format that Art Blocks has developed. We started by creating simple geometry and then applying motion, distortion, feedback, and color. Then we began layering these systems together to create more complex structures. There is an elegance and simplicity to the code and what’s exciting is the rich and vibrant results it produces.
Leo Villareal, Cosmic Reef, 2022..png
Leo Villareal, Cosmic Reef, 2022.
JD: What should collectors look for in your project as the series is revealed?
LV: I hope that collectors will see the range and diversity in each iteration of Cosmic Reef. They are each their own system. We added a feature by which a collector can press the Z key and experience a journey through the geometry. Each work in the series has its own personality. Some are more subtle and minimal with a slow and meditative pace. Others are bursting with energy and evoke the moment of creation. In my mind they represent an open-ended creation myth. There are forms that could exist in the cosmos and others have a distinctly aquatic vibe. We saw a photo that the Hubble Space Telescope sent back called Cosmic Reef, and it all made sense.
JD: I love the Z interaction, being able to dive into the middle of the structure. And now I need to see what the Hubble Cosmic Reef looks like. Is there anything else you’d like to share to help people better understand your art?
LV: I really like the open-ended nature of abstraction and how it allows for highly subjective responses in viewers. I find it refreshing to not see an image or text and for a work to be able to maintain a sense of mystery. There are cues that suggest things we might recognize in nature, but they are not specific. My work is also about time and a constant evolution and change. There is no beginning, middle, or end. Just a constant flow that a viewer can engage with or not, completely on their terms.
JD: Well, it’s been an honor to get to know you better. What’s the best way for people to follow your work moving forward?
LV: You can follow online at—where we have links to our Discord server as well as Twitter and Instagram. In the physical realm, I am having two exhibitions with Pace Gallery this year, one in Palm Beach in March and another in Geneva in the fall.

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