The Light Fantastic

New York artist further enlightens NorthPark Center’s public art

New York artist further enlightens NorthPark Center’s public art

Leo Villareal Buckyball
Buckyball by Leo Villareal. Courtesy photo
Leo Villareal
The artist Leo Villareal. Courtesy photo
Leo Villareal Buckyball
Leo Villareal

 With 16 million distinct colors illuminated in interactive LED lights, artist Leo Villareal’s Buckyball is a vibrant addition to NorthPark’s CenterPark Garden.

Measuring an awe-inspiring 17 by 16 by 16 feet, the sculpture was installed in early November, and its own viewing area — complete with “gravity couches” designed by the artist — opens to the public November 20.

Buckyball is just one of many works by the New York-based Villareal to merge art and light technology. With his pieces in permanent collections of museums such as New York’s MOMA and Japan’s Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum, the artist is known for exploring connections between physics and the natural world without ever losing a primal sense of mystery and wonder.

Having begun his exploration of sculpture as an undergrad at Yale, Villareal began connecting software and light after graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Interactive Telecommunications Program.

“In the early '90s if you were making art with technology, you were showing your art onscreen, which I felt wasn’t visually interesting,” he recalls. “Light has such power — (Dan) Flavin knew about it, (James) Turrell knows it. It’s very primal, almost like staring in a fire. It’s not about words or images, it’s just a deep thing that we all feel a connection to, and combining that with software is an epiphany."

Programmed to move through a random series of transformations created with software developed by the artist, Buckyball will appear fresh each time it's viewed. An homage to Buckminsterfullerne — spherical molecules with a cage-like structure (itself named after futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller) — the first Buckyball was commissioned by Madison Square Park Conservancy, making its debut in late 2012.

“In my work I’ve always been interested in geometry and underlying structures,” recalls Villareal, who first learned of the molecule in a New York Times article. “A lot of things are intriguing about the form, and for the Madison Square Park installation, it seemed the perfect opportunity. It was inspired by the formal elements of the park, like the equestrian statues — putting something on a pedestal and making it monumental.”

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art installed a Buckyball in 2013, eventually acquiring the installation for its permanent collection, and its Dallas edition was commissioned by the Nashers in celebration of the shopping center’s 50th anniversary.

“There’s been discussion about it traveling or moving, but for now, it’s in the center courtyard and it’s very exciting to see how it activates the space,” says the artist. “With an audience of 26 million people a year (at NorthPark), I’m a huge fan of public art.”

For Villareal, having an ongoing presence in Dallas is perfect timing for both the artist and the city.

“Dallas is an amazing place with its museums and culture,” he says. “I’ve spent time there since I was young, visiting the Nashers’ home when I was twentysomething, so I’ve sort of known about Dallas. It’s exciting to me to show my work there. It seems like everything is new and possible and art is part of its identity."