Acclaimed artist Leo Villareal’s lighted sculpture Buckyball (2012) made its debut on the Crystal Bridges grounds several years ago, and the artist visited the museum to help with the installation of the work. During his visit, we took the opportunity to talk with Villareal and learn more about his unique process of combining computer programming and light to create fascinating works of art. Enjoy this interview with the artist below.
Crystal Bridges: You’ve said that it took you a long time to discover your medium. Can you describe that path?
Leo Villareal: I started at Yale as an undergrad thinking I would probably be an art history major. But then I realized, after taking an installation sculpture class, that’s what I wanted to do. Then around 1989-90, there was a buzz about virtual reality and things happening out in California that got my attention and drew me to the interactive telecom program at NYU. I ended up finishing my graduate program there and had an opportunity to go out to California to do a summer internship at a company called Interval Research, which was a think tank founded by Paul Allen who had co-founded Microsoft. It was a very exciting place to be because the idea was that they would combine engineers and programmers with artists and designers and musicians and see what would come of this. I ended up staying for three years. I was exposed to so much amazing thinking from people around the world and it gave me many things to think about.
CB: Were you still thinking of yourself as an artist at that point?
LV: I was, but I was not really sure how I was going to express that. It wasn’t until 1997 that I made my first light sculpture. I came back to New York and I was teaching at NYU, and the exciting moment for me was connecting software and light. A lot of new media artwork involved screens or projections, which I found not to be compelling visually. It didn’t connect back to what I’d seen as a student and loved in art history―the impact of a Rothko painting or a sculpture. But when I made the first light piece, I realized that light had this power to be very impactful and engaged and sensorial, but it was also a way to visually manifest the code that I was using. So I found that connection, and that was really an essential moment for me.
CB: Talk about the structure of Buckyball itself, and why you chose it.
LV: I saw my first Buckyball in a New York Times article and I was intrigued by the form. From the very beginning of my work, I’d been using geometry in different arrangements, particularly the hexagon. So when I saw the Buckyball, it was exciting to me in that it was dimensional—it wasn’t just an array that was flat on a wall, it was really a sculpture—and it combined hexagons and pentagons. The other thing that caught my attention was that the Buckyball was something that was discovered at Rice University by some nanotechnology researchers. They saw this form, and they saw it as a building block. I’m always looking for these building blocks and common denominators, so the Buckyball resonated with that kind of thinking.
CB: I’ve read that the light patterns in the Buckyball stimulate specific neuro centers in the brain. Can you talk a little about the effect the work has on viewers?
LV: I know that light has a very powerful effect. It’s something that is deeply, deeply ingrained in us. I think my pieces are operating on a level that looking at a fire would. It’s harnessing that same whatever’s happening with the fire and the way that it’s pleasant to be near that. It has an ambient quality. There’s something happening that is hard to describe. Somehow it causes a response in viewers that brings out all these feelings that we have about things that we see in nature: our response to a sunset, or to the surface of water, or all these things that surround us all the time. What I’m getting at is capturing these essences, breaking things down, but then recreating them again through these other means. There’s a neurological effect called synesthesia which involves remapping of the senses where people taste colors and hear shapes. There’s a transcribing process that happens, which I think is very interesting in this context. So I can imagine people having different responses and some of the senses becoming remapped.
CB: Your work is very public in nature, and I know you’ve said you really enjoy watching people react to your work in the public setting. Can you talk about the purpose and value of public art?
LV: I really love making public art. I think it’s very important to get art out into the world. As much as I love galleries and museums—and they’re wonderful places—there’s a much bigger role for art to play in many more people’s lives. That’s certainly part of the DNA of what’s happening at Crystal Bridges: that universal quality, really opening things up and making them accessible and de-mystifying the museum and the whole experience. I think that my work has an ability to engage with all kinds of people. Light has a universal quality. Anyone can look at it and have some sort of response. I think public art is about having a space in which to enjoy this technology in an open-ended way that’s about you having an experience or sharing it with a group of people. It’s this ability to create community.
An extended version of this interview first appeared in a 2013 issue of C, the member magazine.
Located on Museum Way, Leo Villareal’s Buckyball is illuminated from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. The light display changes from the white-light daytime sequence to a vibrantly colored evening sequence shortly after dark. Come sit underneath it and enjoy the show.