An ambivalent reaction to art can be revealing. When I'm not quite sure how I feel about something, that point of uncertainty often says the most.
My response to Leo Villareal, the focus of a new exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is a case in point. The 45-year-old artist works with light -- LEDs, strobes, incandescent bulbs -- to create works that flash, glow and flicker. They're immediately absorbing as explorations of pure color, light and movement. Yet at times, there's something a bit superficial or gimmicky at play. Perhaps that tension is the sign of an artist who in on the right track but not fully mature.
This solo show, which runs through Dec. 30 and was organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, gives an overview of the last 15 years of Villareal's work. His first light sculpture, 1997's Strobe Matrix, is included. White strobes skitter in a square Plexiglas box, moving in a pattern programmed by the artist. While mounted here like a painting, Strobe Matrix was actually created as a beacon of sorts for the Burning Man festival, held each year in the Nevada desert.
From that simple beginning, Villareal progressed quickly to more complex and compelling work. High points in this show include 2004's Chasing Rainbows, an eight-foot-wide stack of wall-mounted LED tubes. The tubes glow and pulse in a custom-programmed pattern. The up-down, left-right movement of electric light calls to mind the hypnotic movement of early video games -- as if mixed with abstract painting. I love the moment when the tubes go dark and cold for a moment, before beginning the cycle again.
Translucent material diffuses and softens the light that emanates from the LEDs of Lightscape (2002) and Amanecer (2010), large-scale works (both over ten feet wide) that offer soothing, meditative color. They're surprisingly sensual for technologically driven artworks.
Among the less effective works is the installation Firmament, where guests are invited to lie on couches in a darkened room while strobe lights burst overhead in a frantic pattern. Much like the artist's beloved Burning Man, I'm guessing it's better when, ahem, substances are involved.
The only figurative work, Flag, also seems out of place. Villareal is at his best when doing a kind of electric abstraction or playing with new formats, such as a ceiling-mounted piece or one that extends from the wall perpendicularly, like a cryptic sign.
Visual references both high and low abound, from color-field painting and op art to Lite Brite and Space Invaders, which surely must have been part of Villareal's youth.
The artist is currently at work on a major project called The Bay Lights, an installation on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco that will premiere in 2013. Villareal's star appears to be rising in the art world, and MMoCA's new show offers local viewers an excellent chance to judge it for themselves.