Leo Villareal’s Living Flags

By Scott Mainwaring

Leo Villareal is a celebrated American artist who uses computer-controlled light patterns as his medium.  He created two major works, both entitled Flag, based on the US flag.

Leo Villareal. From villareal.net/bio.
Leo Villareal. From villareal.net/bio.

His 2008 sculpture Flag consists of 13 narrow strips (stripes) of enclosed LED lights, with the gaps between them roughly three times wider than the stripes themselves.  Colors spill out from each stripe, illuminating the gaps between them, sometimes more strikingly than the light-strips themselves.  The blue “union” of the flag is set apart only by color, rather than structure. Proportions of the piece are correct for a US flag: 1.9 times longer than it is tall.

Flag (2008) by Leo Villareal.  From villareal.net/light-sculptures.
Flag (2008) by Leo Villareal. LED tubes, custom software, and electrical hardware. 75 x 144 x 4 inches. From villareal.net/light-sculptures.
As installed at the Armory show, New York, 2009.  Photograph from Casey Gollan's blog.
As installed at the Armory show, New York, 2009. Photograph from Casey Gollan’s blog.

The piece has been displayed both mounted conventionally on a wall, and mounted on a ceiling of an elevator (for the That Was Then … This Is Now show at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center).

"Leo Villareal's new LED Flag installed in the P.S.1 elevator@Museum".  Photograph by Kenzo Hsieh, 2009.
“Leo Villareal’s new LED Flag installed in the P.S.1 elevator@Museum”. Photograph by Kenzo Hsieh, 2009.

Carolina Miranda captured this video of the P.S.1 installation:

Writing for Complex, Leigh Silver has this to say about Villareal’s 2008 work in a posting entitled The Most Important Independence Day Art Pieces:

Taking an image already imbued with symbolism, Villareal casts it as a looming image. Like Johns’ work [Flag, 1954-55], we ask if this is a commemoration of the symbol or a devaluation, cast in the same lights used for bar signs.

(I have yet to see complex LED lighting like this in a bar, but I can see a resonance.)

Villareal’s second Flag (2010) uses a 13 x 30 array of LED tiles encased behind plexiglass. The effect is both more diffuse, but also more pixelated.  It also directly references cellular automata and Conway’s Game of Life (more on this connection later).


"Leo Villareal's Flag - Americana for LEDs and custom software."  From ARTLOG.
“Leo Villareal’s Flag – Americana for LEDs and custom software.” From ARTLOG.

Like ARTLOG, the editors of Artspace also see this work in terms of patriotic Americana:

A darling of the tech-industry collector set, Leo Villareal is probably best known forThe Bay Lights, an $8 million installation of 25,000 LED lights illuminating the cables of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This exquisite sculpture puts those LEDs to a different and proudly patriotic use, composing a version of Old Glory that hearkens back to Jasper Johns‘s revolutionary 1954 encaustic portrait of the American flag. Wheel this showstopper out on the Fourth of July and your friends are sure to be impressed. (From 6 Artlworks to Invest in This June, June 23, 2014.)

The market and market value of these works aside, both of Villareal’s immersive meditations on the US flag beautifully illustrate fundamental aspects of flags in general:  a dynamism that can only be captured in movement, and their aliveness (reflected, for example, in the US Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing”).  These are not just features of flags, but features of computers and software as well.  In animating the US flag through software, I don’t see Villareal making a patriotic statement as much as a biological one.

In this way he is following Jasper James, in making popularly accessible art that has something important to say about the layers of meaning embodied in living flags. From a perceptive interview with Villareal by Daniel Terdiman on CNET’s Tech Culture section:

“My work is focused on stripping systems down to their essence to better understand the underlying structures and rules that govern how they work,” [said] Villareal… “I am interested in lowest common denominators such as pixels or the zeros and ones in binary code. Starting at the beginning, using the simplest forms, I begin to build elements within a framework. My work explores not only on the physical but adds the dimension of time combining both spatial and temporal resolution. My forms move, change, interact and ultimately grow into complex organisms.

‘Inspired by mathematician John Conway’s work with cellular automata and the Game of Life, I seek to create my own sets of rules,” he continued. “Central to my work is the element of chance. The goal is to create a rich environment in which emergent behavior can occur without a preconceived outcome. I am an active participant, serving as editor in the process through careful selection of compelling sequences.”

But it doesn’t end there, Villareal said.

“These selections are then further refined through combination with other sequences through simple operations such as addition, subtraction and multiplication,” he explained. “The sequence’s opacity, speed, and scale can all be manipulated through custom software. Ultimately, complex compositions are formed and then displayed in random order and for a random amount of time in the final artwork. I am interested in the idea of generative art and rendering the patterns on the fly, but have not found a way to generate compelling sequences enough of the time.”

(I’d like to thank Bill Trinkle for calling my attention to Villareal’s work in the Flag Art group on Facebook.)

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