Leo Villareal is back. As usual, he comes bearing light-emitting diodes -- the flickering computer-programmed lights the artist favors for his wall sculptures -- and this time around they're more eloquent than ever.
Which isn't to say I have no qualms with this New York artist's sweepingly gorgeous installations, whose effect is the rough equivalent of downing a Xanax. The beauty and rhythmic pulsations of the three works hung at Conner -- two light-box pieces and one impressive large-scale installation in the main room -- are just what I distrust. I wonder how exactly Villareal intends to push contemporary art forward if he's so busy lulling us with his pretty lights.
See, Villareal puts beauty first. He asks that we excuse the whirring boxes and bulky cables governing the light show. Components are placed discreetly on a ledge or a shelf just out of view. For Villareal, technology is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Which makes me wonder if he isn't missing an interesting avenue of exploration of his LED medium.
When his work does explore the technology, it's predominantly the lively rehashings of old computer games. "Bulbox 3.0" reads like a vintage Atari game, perhaps an early version of Space Invaders. Using only white lights, the piece makes erratic light pulses across the screen. "Particle Playground," Villareal's other light-box work, produces more sophisticated fades of color and shape, suggesting depth and evoking, at various moments, a koi pond or, again with the retro theme, Pac-Man.
The show's main pieces, "Horizon (24)" and "Horizon (8)," move beyond video games to give us something meatier. The installation's horizontal expanse -- LED-filled tubes hung at eye level, three tubes abreast, running 24 feet on one wall, eight feet on another, like an extra-wide musical staff -- suggests an expansive landscape. Inspired by the endless horizons out West, where the artist is currently assembling a commission for a federal courthouse, the installation suggests the light works found in those parts: Walter de Maria's lighting fields, James Turrell's Roden Crater, Dan Flavin's installations at Marfa.
Just like his famous forebears, Villareal transforms light into a material as substantive as paint or bronze. Conner closed off the windows so we're immersed in Villareal's flickering piece, which casts colored shadows on the gallery's white walls, floors and ceiling. Colors sprint or mosey as the artist's programming dictates, conjuring lightning, sunset, sunrise, fireworks, blackouts and a host of visual phenomena I'd be hard pressed to name.
"Horizon" taps our brains' recognition software, the cells that recognize blips and flashes and assign them meaning. It also taps our fine-art knowledge, evoking light artists and even 19th-century romantic landscapes. This is a very fine undertaking indeed. Still, I suspect there remains more to be done -- more buttons to be pushed. But Villareal is certainly on his way.
Joe White at Edison Place Gallery
Joe White uses reality as a jumping-off point for his large-scale architectural paintings, but he's not faithful to the world that surrounds him. He's in the business of paring down. Beginning with photographs and video stills as source material, he performs a kind of mental Photoshop, erasing select bits in his mind. By the time the buildings end up on canvas, details and texture have been edited out.
His stripped-down building facades and streetscapes recall digital imaging or an architect's computer drawings. Whittled down to bare building blocks of color, his paintings are just a few steps short of abstraction, yet they remain recognizable as structures. White trained as an abstractionist (one of his very early canvases is on view here, though it's nothing to write home about) and it's clear an allegiance to nonobjective art runs right alongside his realist tendencies. It's those divided loyalties that make his retrospective at Pepco's Edison Place Gallery such an intriguing show.
I like how these pictures trick the eye. White offers only a building's gestalt. What we think we see is not always there; our imaginations must fill in the details. The painting "View From F Street" offers silhouettes of structures rendered in color fields. We're left to translate a clay-colored wall into a brick one. We must also add the necessary depth that White's compressed composition has squeezed out. You could call it photo-realism without the details.
Such reduction is absent in White's landscapes, which are the weaker for it. "California Seascape" fills in all the blanks for us: The large-scale canvas includes details of a rock outcrop's crags and indentions -- they're not just suggested, but insisted upon. The exciting, sharp-edged demarcations of the architectural pieces disappear and the works devolve into something sleepier.
That's not to say that White's architectural pictures are active. His works in other exhibitions have always struck me as bland. This time around, though, that blandness impressed me. The scope and scale made all the difference. Now I find that the pictures have an Edward Hopper kind of presence, one where emptiness carries psychic weight. Their falseness, too, intrigues. A famous landmark of Venice, as rendered in "The Arsenale," is reduced to patches of aqua water under a perfectly regular colonnade. The work may as well be a portrait of the Las Vegas Venetian, so artificial is its staging.
Which brings me to the heart of White's talent: He gives even the most idealized buildings soul.
Leo Villareal at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave. NW, Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 202-588-8750, through June 26.
Prime Work: The Art of Joseph White at the Edison Place Gallery, 701 Eighth St. NW, Tuesday-Friday noon-4 p.m., 202-667-2714, through June 30.