Shotgun Review

From New York: Buckyball

By Brent Foster Jones January 15, 2013

In the late 1990s, having worked at philanthropist Paul Allen’s futurist and utopian Interval Research in Palo Alto, Leo Villareal made his first light work at Burning Man. Using a handful of strobes, he scripted basic computer code and mounted the object on the roof of his mobile home. At night, the pulsing work would signal to him in the vast darkness from a distance. Nearly twenty years later, the festival’s visual culture and communal gifting ethos appears imbued in his electroluminescent sculptures and installations that activate public spaces and architecture like civic gestures.

Villareal has been aligned with the pioneering 1960s and ’70s Light and Space artists of California. Akin to the late Dan Flavin, he fits his glowing site-specific art onto architecture, such as in Multiverse (2008), an enveloping two-hundred-foot long corridor of randomized white light in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And like James Turrell, he uses light as a material or thing to stir, as with The Bay Lights, an ethereal and rhythmic San Francisco Bay Bridge installation scheduled to launch in March 2013.

However, Villareal does not, as critic Claire Bishop argues of Turrell, “suspend time and orphan us from the world.”1 His triggering, controlled works neither engulf nor disorient. Instead, they arouse.

Buckyball (2012), mysteriously hovering above viewers in Madison Square Park in New York this winter, evinces his humanity and depth of knowledge of mathematical and scientific models. Based on Buckminster Fuller’s “Fullerene,” a carbon molecule resembling the researcher’s geodesic dome (and a recurring motif at Burning Man), Villareal has lined two sleek, metal spheres, nested inside one another, with 180 LED tubes capable of millions of colors. Specialized outdoor sofas cradle and tilt viewers up, allowing for an intimate, hypnotic gaze.


Leo Villareal. Buckyball, 2012; LEDs, custom software, electrical hardware, metal armature, sculptural base; 360 x 240 x 240 in; installation view, Madison Square Park. Courtesy of Madison Square Park Conservatory. Photo: James Ewing.

Mercurial and playful, the work excels after dusk. Abstractions in futuristic hues gently sluice through the armature’s veins. Patterns seem to take hold then disintegrate. Sometimes, the entire sculpture darkens, as if wiped out (the effect is thrilling); then, slowly, a single metal limb will aglow and, segment by segment, the work rebirths in an unfolding, organic reveal. Villareal understands the way humans are attracted to patterns and light, and he has likened his art to looking into the flames of a fire. Buckyball is alive.

Villareal is a craftsman and a technologist. He hand codes his pleasing sequences, scripting rules and conditions, then elegantly buries complex circuitry beneath highly finished surfaces. He has suggested his planned abstractions demonstrate behaviors. They are like living beings sent back from the future: hardwired but ready for contact.

Buckyball is on view at Madison Square Park, in New York City, through February 15, 2013.


Brent Foster Jones lives in New York and previously taught at California College of the Arts. He recently wrote about photographer Todd Hido.



1. Claire Bishop, Installation Art (New York; Routledge, 2005), 85.

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