Back in the days before ipads and Nintendo Wiis came along to hypnotise a generation, there were other forms of entertainment for kids. Train sets, puzzles, board games, action figures and model aeroplanes were just some of the things that brought delight to millions in that long forgotten age. Perhaps most iconic of all though, was Lego. With Lego, the possibilities were endless. I for one could spend hours making space ships and castles, then several more hours enacting bizarre scenes that only a child, with a slightly warped imagination, could dream up. Before alcohol came along, playing with Lego was about as much fun as was possible to have.
Beyond merely being children’s entertainment, in the right hands Lego can be used to put together some truly spellbinding creations, and it is this connection between childhood and adulthood, between vivid imagination and technical mastery, that ‘The Art of the Brick’ seeks to explore.
A solo exhibition by New York based Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, the show features dozens of sculptures, ranging from literal translations of everyday objects, to portraits of music icons like Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, to expressive depictions of human strife, all created in Lego. In total, somewhere around 400,000 individual Lego pieces were used to put the exhibits together. The immense T-Rex skeleton in the final room contains over 80,000 pieces in itself. It is truly a remarkable feat of craftsmanship.
‘Some of my works are fun and whimsical, others have more emotion, but it’s all very exciting’, reflects Sawaya. ‘I use Lego because it’s very accessible. I have experimented with all sorts of media, I have even made sculptures out of candy, but the great thing about Lego is that it crosses age boundaries. Adults can enjoy my work as they would any other form of art, and children can enjoy it because, well, it's Lego!’
The exhibition is cleverly organized, becoming increasingly atmospheric as it progresses. The pieces are arranged in loose chronological order, starting with studies of everyday objects, and moving on to ever more virtuoso sculptures as Sawaya hones his skill and pushes the boundaries of the medium.
Throughout, the most striking feature for any visitor who has used Lego themselves, is the meticulous planning that must have been required to make sure that each sculpture is balanced and the colours co-ordinated.
‘The time taken to complete a piece varies hugely’, says Sawaya. ‘It depends on the size obviously, but also on the complexity. Some of the smaller pieces may only take a few hours, whilst others have taken me months.'
'I have to draw up a lot of plans, and if during the building process I am not happy with a certain part, I will cut it away and start over. Sometimes I have lost a fortnight’s work by doing that, but for me it’s very important that the finished piece looks right.’
Towards the end of the exhibition the themes become darker and more intense. In ‘Hanging on the Edge’ Sawaya explores the nature of depression with an audacious sculpture of a person seemingly clinging to a wall by one finger.
Nearby, his masked figure deals with how people project themselves in society, whilst ‘Yellow,’ perhaps his most famous piece, reflects on the catharsis of overcoming this façade and ‘opening oneself up to the world’.
Arguably most arresting of all is Sawaya’s self-portrait, depicting a man in a suit, with a red creature tearing its way out of the man’s stomach. The neutral hues of the suited man contrast sharply with the brilliant red of what is emerging from inside of him. It is the fire of inspiration: the fire of an idea.
‘I began my career as a full time artist eight years ago, but before that I was a lawyer working in New York’ explains Sawaya. ‘There is nothing wrong with that, but I always knew there was another me, an artist me, lurking inside. Once I let that side of me out, I have never looked back.’
Looking around at the host of sculptures on display, each one seemingly more refined than the last, it’s easy to see why Sawaya doesn’t regret his switch in careers. ‘Today my mission statement would be to inspire others to create their own art’ he declares. ‘This is why the accessible element to Lego is important to me. I think we need more artists, not necessarily masterpieces, but we need more artists.’
Sawaya certainly deserves credit for having the resolve to stick with an underexplored and often under-appreciated art form, and the wizardry on display here definitively answers the question of whether Lego art can really be defined as ‘Art’.
Sawaya has already pushed the fold in terms of what can be achieved in Lego sculpture, and as he continues to gain a deeper understanding of his chosen medium, it seems clear that his best works are still ahead of him.
WORDS BY ARVIN MAHANTA
IMAGES COURTESY OF NATHAN SAWAYA