‘Cosmic Reef’ by Leo Villareal opens at Art Blocks gallery, over a thousand NFTs on view

Cosmic Reef #80 by Leo Villareal. Courtesy of Art Blocks.

MARFA — Artist Leo Villareal, a contemporary American artist well-known for his computer-generated light sculptures that sometimes take the form of monumental public installations, will have 1,024 generative non-fungible tokens (NFTs) — part of his Cosmic Reef series — on view in person at Art Blocks in Marfa starting this Thursday. 

The exhibit, which marks the artist’s first foray into the world NFTs, will kick off with a free public reception from 5 to 8 p.m. May 5 at the Art Blocks space, a house-turned-gallery, located at 109 W San Antonio Street. There will also be additional works on view by Cooper Jamieson, and the show will remain up until September 2022. Art Blocks, a digital platform and physical gallery space dedicated to minting and showcasing NFT art, officially opened its brick and mortar location in Marfa this fall, to much skepticism from the local art community. Villareal’s installation will be the gallery’s second since opening.

Villareal has family roots in Marfa dating back to the 1880s. The descendent of early Big Bend rancher Lucas Charles Brite, he is now the owner of the Brite Mansion, which he and his wife, Yvonne Force Villareal, are restoring and opening up to artist residencies and exhibitions. Born in New Mexico, Villareal studied set design and sculpture at Yale University and interactive telecommunications at New York University. He is responsible for, among other works, creating two large-scale light sculptures, The Bay Lights in San Francisco and Illuminated River in London. 

Art Blocks invites artists to create algorithms with parameters that will result in visual variability, allowing for many iterations of a certain work of digital art. Once uploaded to the blockchain — a digital ledger that decentralizes digital storage and proves digital ownership — collectors, not yet knowing exactly what they’ve purchased, run the code, minting their own unique NFT in the process. Art Blocks typically generates around 1,000 NFTs per curated project, which are purchased by collectors using cryptocurrency. 

Cosmic Reef, a series of 1,024 NFTs, numbered for two to the tenth power, launched on Art Blocks in January and completely sold out within an hour of being uploaded on the blockchain, said Villareal. 

Villareal, no stranger to computer code and custom software, said he was initially grappling with understanding NFTs and their role, but after meeting Art Blocks founder Erick Calderon, other cryptocurrency advocates and attending the Art Blocks opening, was excited about the possibility of working in NFTs and thought it was a good match for his existing art practice. 

“It took me a long time to wrap my head around it, and I already work with code and software and do very new things in terms of the art world,” said Villareal. “But for me, it’s been a huge learning experience. Everyone is learning and the form [of the NFT market] is taking shape.” 

Interior of the Art Blocks house in Marfa, Texas, 109 W San Antonio St. Courtesy of Art Blocks.

He worked for several months creating the code for Cosmic Reef, he said. Pace Gallery, who represents Villareal, has shown some of the works recently, but the Marfa show will be the first time they are being displayed in entirety — a video Villareal created shows all 1,024 works. Some monitors will show singular works, while others will rotate through a handful of NFTs. Permission had to be obtained to show the work from each of the collectors.

“Even though they exist purely digitally, it is very interesting to actually make a physical exhibition of these things with particular kinds of screens and all these things which are always connecting back to my day-to-day work in sculpture,” said Villareal. 

The images are not stationary and are always in motion, taking the viewer on an immersive journey, said Villareal. He programmed a zoom function into the works which viewers can activate by pressing the Z key on a keyboard, taking them deeper into the image. 

The show name Cosmic Reef refers to the 2020 image of starbirth taken by the Hubble Space telescope. Villareal is often inspired by phenomena found in nature, he said, and he liked that the concept of a cosmic reef refers to both celestial and aquatic life. 

“What’s interesting to me is how with a tiny little bit of code you can create things that look like they’re possibly from nature or things that are very complex. But in a way, it’s kind of understanding the underlying structures of the things that surround us in the world,” said Villareal.

Rather than making scientific visualizations, Villareal often interprets, using software, how he might view moving water or a sunset. He said he relates to the age-old concept of an artist interpreting an everyday scene in their own style. For example, Claude Monet painting the scene of the Westminster Bridge and the River Thames in London just as he saw it. 

“He’s capturing his impression of that moment. In a way I’m doing the same thing except I’m not doing it with pigment. I happen to be doing it with my own custom made software and other kinds of tools, but it’s very much with the same impulse I think that artists have always had,” said Villareal. 

Fully aware of Art Block’s initial less than ideal reception from the Marfa arts community, and the larger controversies surrounding NFTs, Villareal said he encourages people to turn out to the show with an open mind. 

“What I would say to people is that they should reserve judgment, learn a bit about it, come and spend some time at the Art Block space, see the exhibition,” said Villareal. “It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea. But I think that it’s something very new, innovative and exciting.” 

He recalled how his great-grandmother, the family matriarch, met with Donald Judd back when he was new to town. 

“She really did not know much about minimal art. She knew about cattle, ranching and a lot of other things,” said Villareal. “[Judd] sat with her and they had tea and he really tried to explain what he was doing and she thought, well, this is good for Marfa, and welcomed him as many others did.” 

Art Blocks is, in a sense, working in a similar vein to freely explore new ideas, he said. In addition to his artwork reaching a wider audience through his expansion into NFTs, Villareal said the philanthropic aspect of Art Blocks is also admirable. Art Blocks announced in February they facilitated nearly $45 million dollars in charitable donations in 2021. 

Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from Cosmic Reef sales will be donated, said Villareal, focusing on organizations that work with children and in the fields of art and technology. Recipients will be the Marfa Education Foundation and Alpine Montessori school. Additionally, Villareal is exploring the possibility of partnering with Ballroom Marfa, where he also serves on the board, to host internships for young people to gain experience in the arts industry and learn about the various jobs available. 

This will be Art Blocks’ first public event to coincide with the Marfa Invitational Art Fair.

“It was a conscious decision from Art Blocks to launch the exhibit with a free event during the highly exclusive and anticipated Marfa Invitational weekend,” said a press release from Art Blocks. “Core to Art Blocks’ mission is to open doors previously shut to a new generation of art enthusiasts and digital-first artists. They believe that the more art is available to a wider audience, the more transformative power it can hold.”