“I started going out to Burning Man in 1994,” Villareal said. “I had just finished my master’s degree at (New York University) and started an internship in Palo Alto, Calif.”
On Feb. 24, Villareal explains his Burning Man experience while sitting on a black leather couch that will act as a viewing area for a piece in his artwork exhibit that opens Sunday at the Nevada Museum of Art. He casually talks about how his co-workers coaxed him out to the playa while looking like a member of the corporate world, wearing a button-up collared shirt and vest. Villareal has been a Burner for 17 years now.
Villareal recalls finding it difficult to locate his camp in 1994 and vowed to have a solution upon returning to the annual festival.
“I said I was going to create a beacon for myself in 1997,” Villareal said. “I brought it out and put it on top of my mobile home. I found it not only to be a guide back but a very compelling piece of artwork.”
While talking about the beacon, called “Strobe Matrix,” it blinked irrationally on the museum’s showroom floor. Not quite Morse Code. Not stagnate long enough to lose attention. But a constant flash of light to help Villareal find his way back to base camp.
Since then, Villareal’s artwork has flourished with more than 20 pieces calling the Nevada Museum of Art home from Sunday to May 22.
“It’s really grown in an organic fashion from discovering light on the playa,” Villareal said.
The light sculptor has since ventured out to include more technologically advanced techniques in his artwork. Villareal graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art from Yale and a master’s degree in interactive telecommunications from NYU.
“There was a big buzz about virtual reality at NYU,” Villareal said. “The epiphany I had was that I didn’t need a ton of information. You can do a lot with very little.”
Explaining that the piece “Diamond Sea” uses less pixels than a digital photograph, but takes up a large space in the gallery, is what Villareal meant. “Diamond Sea” is about 20 pixels by 30 pixels, Villareal said, but a picture can be 100 times that size.
“The date is not huge, but I am interested in the constraints,” Villareal said. “My work is very abstract. I’m very interested in using code, but in a very organic way to make it feel alive and real.”
Pieces such as “Metatron” and “Star” have been programmed by Villareal, but once the coding is done he lets the computer randomize the patterns. He admits that he doesn’t even know the order of the patterns and that people could stare at the same piece for hours and possibly not see the same sequence twice.
Villareal has created his own software to code the light sculptures.
“Leo Villareal: Animating Light is the first major technology-based exhibition that has been presented in an arts venue in northern Nevada,” said Ann M. Wolfe, curator of exhibitions and collections at the Nevada Museum of Art, in a press release. “The museum is thrilled to show Villareal’s works especially because they relate directly to the Museum’s inherent focus on art and environment. Villareal’s installations respond and activate the architectural environments they occupy, while creating virtual environments that are both hypnotic and exhilarating.”
“I want my work to be accessible,” Villareal said while working to install “Metatron” at the museum. “It’s not about the computer or the technology. It’s about how people feel about the artwork.
“I don’t have a preconceived notion about what a piece should be,” Villareal added. “One piece really lends to the next. You try to learn and experiment. My first piece has 16 strobe lights and ‘Diamond Sea’ has 2,400 LED lights.”
In 2008, Villareal created an awe-inspiring 41,000 LED light display at the National Gallery of Art called “Multiverse.”
“A group of people can experience it together, it’s not a solitary journey,” Villareal said. “I see the pieces as a portal or transportation. The light is very seductive, our brain sees the light and likes it and draws you in.
“It’s using the same medium you might see in advertising or pop culture but it is more open-ended,” Villareal added.
Villareal’s wish for his work to be accessible also will be made possible by grants given to the Nevada Museum of Art that allow the second Saturday of each month to be open free to the public.
“We started at about 215 people on the first Second Saturday (event) and there were 1,200 here in February,” said Rachel Milon, director of communications and marketing at the museum. “It started in May 2010.
“We wanted to start a program like that and thanks to the Nightingale Foundation we can,” Milon added.
Leo Villareal: Animating Light opens on Sunday and continues through May 22 at the Nevada Museum of Art located at 160 West Liberty Street in Reno. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, $1 for children 6 to 12 years old and free for children younger than 5. For more information, call 329-3333 or visit www.nevadaart.org.