At the National Gallery of Art, Leo Villareal's 'Multiverse' Is Light on Gravity

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 28, 2008

Holiday tradition suggests it should have come a week later, but on Monday the National Gallery of Art switched on the city's largest, finest display of Christmas lights.

Glide down the moving sidewalk that leads from the East Building, and you're now treated to a feast of more than 40,000 bright-white LEDs, covering the ceiling and curving wall of its 200-foot tunnel. Sometimes the bulbs twinkle randomly, like stars in the night sky. Sometimes they are synchronized in swells of moving light, like waves hitting the shore. And sometimes they make patterns that are almost biological, as pizza-pan blobs of light float and bounce across the ceiling. The gallery's extravagant new lighting makes the 90-second trip to the cafeteria, which used to be a bit of a downer, into a cheery ride.

There's just one problem. The gallery is billing that cheer as significant art, up there with the treasures that it holds by Titian and Cezanne, Picasso, Pollock and Newman.

The installation is called "Multiverse," and it's by Leo Villareal, a 41-year-old light artist from New York. (Washingtonians know him well, because for several years he's been showing with Conner Contemporary Art, an excellent local gallery that recently moved to an exciting space near H Street NE.)

This summer, when I first heard that the National Gallery had invited Villareal to install one of his trademark light works, I had my doubts. Villareal has had something like 15 years of mature work, but he's yet to have a solo show in a museum of real note. More importantly, his shimmering LEDs have failed to inspire anything like substantial critical thought. Compare Villareal's résumé to other figures on the contemporary scene -- to Scotsman Douglas Gordon (he had a stunning solo at the Hirshhorn in 2004), to Frenchman Pierre Huyghe (he was a standout in the Hirshhorn's recent "Cinema Effect" project, and has triggered major writings), even to New York light artist Spencer Finch, who makes work with real heft -- and the difference is clear. At the time of the announcement, it was hard to imagine that Villareal could be ready for prime time, as represented by a major commission from the National Gallery.

Now that Villareal's work has been installed -- it's due to linger for a year, and could stay longer -- it's hard to think how anyone could have imagined he was up to the venue.

"Multiverse" is good, attractive fun, but it doesn't have the substance that would bring it even close to major art. Think of how infinitely complex, and permanently perplexing, an important picture can be. No one could ever come to the end of a great Titian or Cezanne. No matter how long you spend, you feel you've barely scratched the surface. Villareal is all attractive surface; scratch it, and you're through. In the two hours I spent looking at "Multiverse," hardly a single other visitor lingered with the piece longer than the time it took for them to clear the tunnel. Most people seemed to treat it like clever lighting rather than a work of art at all: They gave it a quick look, cracked a smile, then continued with their conversations. As one passerby concluded, "It's very neon-ish." My own two hours were spent trying to go deeper into the work than that. And finding myself forever back where I had started: at a truly lovely holiday display.

And this, the National Gallery is claiming, is the art that will demonstrate the institution's new commitment to the art of our time.

"Multiverse" was three years in the planning, and then took a team of workers three months to install. And since a Villareal with just a tenth the LEDs is priced at $90,000 -- the National Gallery won't release the cost of the installation -- one way or another the investment of resources was substantial. Especially given such a slight payoff.

There's no shortage of simple pleasure in Villareal's work. But can it really claim to provide the deep insights or transforming experiences that we've all been told -- correctly -- to look for in our greatest art museums? "We expect that it will be very popular," said Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery, as quoted in the press release for "Multiverse." But since when has art been a popularity contest? Do great museums dare claim that they matter -- that they deserve donations or tax dollars -- if all they do is provide experiences that come so close to popular pleasures we can get elsewhere? We've encountered the joys of "Multiverse" before, in high-end discos, on our computers' screen-savers, in wow-cool lights from the local head shop. (It's notable that Villareal's reviews almost always mention "psychedelia" and "trippy" light effects.)

The one more substantial claim you sometimes hear for Villareal's work is that to truly appreciate it, you have to look below its flashy surface and consider the sophisticated computer science that makes it go. National Gallery curator Molly Donovan praised "the rigor behind it, in the programming." Not being a connoisseur of programming, rigorous or not, I made a point of visiting Villareal's last Washington show with someone who is: engineer Alvy Ray Smith, one of the pioneers of computer graphics and a co-founder of Pixar, as well as a serious art collector. (He was the brains behind the famous "Genesis Demo" in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn" -- it was the first computer-animated sequence in a major feature film -- and he holds two science and technology Academy Awards.) Smith was less than impressed with Villareal's art, suggesting that, from a computing point of view, it was old hat. In fact, it reminded Smith of "The Game of Life," a screen-saver, of sorts, that was popular in the early 1970s -- and that Villareal admits as a major inspiration. "It was really fun to watch. But it got old really fast," recalled Smith of the screen-saver.

Villareal's work is already old: "Multiverse" is a fancy retread of the kinetic and neon art that had its big, brief moment in the late 1960s and '70s, and then faded from view. The almost universal conclusion was that art that flashed and banged had turned out to be not much more than a lot of flashes and bangs. Or worse: Kinetic art seemed to express a naive faith in technology, with no probing of the downsides of machines and industry. Forty years and a warming planet later, and that's where Villareal's work still stands: fetishizing high-tech, in a kind of Sharper Image version of artistic thought. As Smith pointed out, Villareal's programming doesn't actually do anything impressive. It's just made to look like it might, to those without the background to know better.

Visiting the installation at the National Gallery, Villareal's dealer heard one enthusiastic visitor exclaim, "Wow, a space-warp, man." That visitor was right: With this work, the National Gallery has entered "Star Trek" territory.

Cap'n, Cap'n, we're stuck in the Multiverse and the warp core is almost out of dilithium crystals!

Don't worry, Scotty. We'll use the moving sidewalk instead.

Multiverse is on view in the East Building of the National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, call 202-737-4215 or visit

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