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Leo Villareal's 'Cosmos' to glow at Johnson Museum

Lindsay France/University Photography
Leo Villareal light installation at the Johnson Museum.
Lindsay France/University Photography
"Cosmos" is composed of nearly 12,000 energy-efficient light-emitting diodes assembled on a grid.
Lindsay France/University Photography
The display is installed above the museum's Mallin Sculpture Court.

The newest work of public art on Cornell's campus will give viewers a constantly changing, unique experience.

Leo Villareal's "Cosmos" is composed of nearly 12,000 energy-efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on gridwork above the Johnson Museum of Art's Mallin Sculpture Court. The artist and his team programmed the piece during a campus residency this week.

Villareal gives a public lecture Oct. 22 at 5:15 p.m. in Milstein Auditorium, after which the installation, which also is visible in daylight, will be on view.

"It's very abstract, and very open-ended," Villareal said. "Once you begin programming, it changes and becomes something else."

Villareal, project architect Walter Smith, and Lisa and Richard Baker '88, who funded the project, visited the I.M. Pei-designed museum in November 2010 to determine together with museum staff a location for the installation. The sculpture court ceiling, measuring approximately 45 feet by 68 feet, was chosen for its high visibility on campus and from the city of Ithaca below.

Working with Andrea Inselmann, the museum's curator of modern and contemporary art, the artist's team returned in April 2012 to install a 9-foot-square mockup, and installation of the final work began in August. The grid is attached to the ceiling through electrical junction boxes.

Villareal said the installation also "reinvigorates the site. This building was really radical in 1973, and it still is."

"From the very beginning, it's been the most collaborative and exciting project I think I might ever have worked on," said Stephanie Wiles, the museum's Richard J. Schwartz Director. "We all believed in the project and are excited to have it at the Johnson for so many different reasons, including inspiring students who are working with digital technology in many different ways. It just feels like it's the perfect spot for the work to be."

Villareal said he named the piece "Cosmos" because "I grew up on Carl Sagan and love that he spent so much time here. I was a geeky kid with an Apple II+." Villareal also designed a zero-gravity bench on the sculpture court for museum visitors.

Software, programmed by Villareal and project team member Jason Cipriani, will generate new patterns throughout the life of the installation.

"It will have a presence during the day, and the farther away you are from it, the lights [seem to] compress," Smith said. "There's certainly a connection to music in its composition. … We had a couple of bioengineering students stop by, and [one of them] said, 'I write programs exactly like this!'"

Villareal's major site-specific works include "Multiverse" in the National Gallery of Art's Concourse in Washington, D.C., in 2008, and "Hive," recently installed in the Bleecker Street/Lafayette Street subway station in lower Manhattan. Another new piece, "Buckyball," will open Oct. 25 in Manhattan's Madison Square Park.

The artist said his work on "Cosmos" has also helped with his largest installation to date, "The Bay Lights," which opens in March and will stretch 1.8 miles on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

Richard and Lisa Baker have commissioned works by artists including Villareal and James Turrell, and have worked with Smith on several installations. To support established and emerging artists, the couple created the Baker International Exhibitions foundation, overseen by Lisa Baker, who also serves on the Johnson Museum's Advisory Council.

Richard Baker is governor and CEO of the Hudson's Bay Company, the oldest retail company in North America. A School of Hotel Administration (SHA) graduate, he serves on the advisory boards of the SHA and the Baker Program in Real Estate, which the Bakers endowed this year.


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