Learn more about three major artists whose work is helping to transform San Francisco nights into a citywide gallery of light.

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November 16, 2018

3 Light Artists You Need to Know About

Jim Campbell, James Turrell and Leo Villareal are some of the world’s most notable light artists, and San Francisco is home to a number of their stunning works of art. Whether you’re a longtime fan of light art or just interested in turning a regular evening into an illuminating adventure, learn more about these artists whose work is transforming San Francisco into a citywide gallery of light.

Jim Campbell, Ocean Mirror with Fragments (Inner Sunset), Day for Night (SoMa/Yerba Buena)

“I took an image of ocean waves moving and gradually slowed it down … over a 10-minute period it starts out completely representational and ends up purely abstract … leaving open the more primitive pathways to one’s brain.” - Jim Campbell

OCEAN MIRROR WITH FRAGMENTS
Jim Campbell (2007)
Permanent
Inner Sunset: 505 Parnassus Ave., Saunder's Court, UCSF    

DAY FOR NIGHT
Jim Campbell
Permanent
SoMa/Yerba Buena: 415 Mission St., Salesforce Tower

San Francisco-based electronic-media artist Jim Campbell creates work that combines film, light emitting diodes (LEDs) and sculptural elements. His choice of materials is often complex, and he uses them to create imagery that is allusive and open-ended. His exploration of the distinction between the analog world and its digital representation metaphorically parallels the difference between poetic understanding versus the mathematics of data.

Rather than working with highly defined images, the artist pushes the limits of perception and explores the line between representation and abstraction. He leaves it to viewers to fill in the gaps, allowing them to personalize his work to an unusual degree.  

"Ocean Mirror with Fragments," installed in Saunder’s Court, University of California, San Francisco, uses moving images of waves in the Pacific Ocean, recorded from a point directly west of the artwork to create a mirror image. The low-resolution LED display is contained within a freestanding six-by-six-foot glass wall, and seven glass cubes scattered within the garden also have LEDs in them, each synchronized to a different block of the display grid. The movement within and between these scattered glass cubes creates the effect of the ocean waves going beyond the display into the garden area. 

"Day for Night" is the crowning achievement—literally—of the Salesforce Tower. Atop the tallest building west of the Mississippi, Campbell has created a towering artwork that displays images and scenes captured around the city. It's all done at a scale and height that allows visitors to experience it from almost any neighborhood.

James Turrell, Three Gems (Golden Gate Park) and Skygarden (Central Market)

“I want to use light as this wonderful and magic elixir that we drink as Vitamin D through the skin — and I mean, we are literally light-eaters—my desire is to set up a situation … and let you see." – James Turrell

THREE GEMS
James Turrell (2005)
Permanent
Golden Gate Park: Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, de Young Museum

SKYGARDEN
James Turrell (2007)
Permanent
Central Market: 90 Seventh St. at Mission Street, San Francisco Federal Building

For over half a century, James Turrell has worked with light and space to engage viewers with the limits and wonder of human perception. In his work, light and color reach for the sublime. From artworks on paper and holograms to immersive gallery installations and the monumental earthwork Roden Crater in Arizona’s Painted Desert, Turrell is fascinated with the perceptual mechanics of vision and how the manipulation of real and artificial light can play tricks on the mind and eye. 

The artist often cites the Parable of Plato’s Cave to introduce the notion that we are living in a reality of our own creation, subject to our human sensory limitations as well as contextual and cultural norms. This is evident in "Three Gems" at the de Young Museum’s Babro Osher Sculpture Garden, which is one of more than 80 James Turrell “Skyspaces,” chambers with an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. The simple act of witnessing the sky from within "Three Gems," notably at dawn and dusk, reveals how we internally create the colors we see and thus, our perceived reality. Also in San Francisco, the artist created "Skygarden" within a three-story opening in the south facade of the San Francisco Federal Building, using neon light as his only material. Unlike other Turrell artworks, viewers can experience "Skygarden" from within, from without, and from great distances. Turrell plays with these myriad vantage points, creating different perceptual situations for each of them. 

Leo Villareal, The Bay Lights (Embarcadero, San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span) 

“My work is focused on stripping systems down to their essence to better understand the underlying structure … I have to be there to work with the light and fine tune it to just the right level. It becomes like tuning an instrument.” – Leo Villareal

THE BAY LIGHTS 
Leo Villareal (2013) 
Permanent
Embarcadero: San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span

BUCKYBALL
Leo Villareal (2012)
Through Feb. 25, 2018
Embarcadero: Exploratorium, Pier 15

POINT CLOUD
Leo Villareal (2019)
Permanent
Yerba Buena: The Moscone Center Pedestrian Bridge, 747 Howard St.

In February 2016, Leo Villareal’s temporary two-year light sculpture, "The Bay Lights," was installed permanently as a gift to the people of California and the world.  Every evening from dusk to dawn, the 25,000 individually programmed LED lights in this iconic installation transform the San Francisco Bay Bridge into a monumental illuminated canvas. Known internationally for his light sculptures and site-specific architectural works, the artist orchestrates complex, dazzling installations merging art, code and the most intangible media: light. Considered the most prominent light sculptor among his generation of light artists, his site-specific installations include "Multiverse" in the National Gallery of Art’s Concourse in Washington, D.C. and "Hive" for the Bleecker Street/Lafayette Street subway station in Manhattan. His work is part of the permanent collections of major museums worldwide. 

Villareal's light sculpture Buckyball is currently installed in the public space on Pier 15 at the Exploratorium through Feb. 25, 2018. He is also one of three artists commissioned by The San Francisco Arts Commission to create public artwork in conjunction with The Moscone Center Expansion Project. Point Cloud is composed of more than 50,000 color LEDs arranged in a three-dimensional display that glimmers over the heads of walkers on the bridge. Approximately 1,300 mirrored steel rods hang from the ceiling to support the LED matrix and produce an ephemeral optical effect.

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