Brick Master


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Sean Kenney makes life-size sculptures of endangered animals out of Lego bricks. Adam Reed Tucker reconstructs famous buildings throughout the world in Lego form. Beth Weis specializes in Lego as home décor. Some people grew up building with Legos, and then never stopped. Lego invaded their minds and now they view the world through a Lego prism. These people have made Lego into a full-time profession. So much so that Lego now has an officially recognized category of what they call “Certified Professionals.” There are nine of these Certified Professionals at present. They are good at making things with Lego.

  • “Brick by Brick: the LEGO Brick sculpture of Nathan Sawaya.” Through April 13. Agora Gallery, New York.

Certified Professional Nathan Sawaya got his start at the Legoland theme park in Southern California. Now, he is taking aim at the art world proper. His show, “The Art of the Brick,” is currently on tour at museums and galleries throughout the country. I went to see his Lego art at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, New York.

The show takes on big issues like Despair and Grief. One sculpture, “Red,” shows a male figure from the waist up, emerging from a pile of red Lego bricks into full form. The figure reaches upward, desperate fingers clutching for the sky. Another, “My Boy,” is a blue Lego man on his knees holding the collapsed form of what is presumably the dead or injured (Lego) boy in his arms. It’s a Lego tragedy!

The implied formal question in Sawaya’s sculptures is about the limitations and possibilities of a Lego brick as an artistic material. Looking at the work of Nathan Sawaya in relation to his professional Lego colleagues one thing becomes obvious. Sawaya has achieved a qualitative leap. The other pros, talented as they may be, are essentially doing the same thing that children do with Lego bricks, though at a higher level of proficiency. Instead of making a one-room house with 50 bricks, they make the Sears Tower with 50,000.

Sawaya has managed to separate Lego from that kind of literalism. It’s sort of analogous to the moment when painting finally freed itself from the limitations of direct representation and got wild with abstraction and other nifty new tricks. Sawaya’s work is still representational, for the most part, but it isn’t Lego-like anymore; his constructions aren’t simply the toy-version of some real-world thing.

The sculptures are, however, extremely stupid. I don’t really mean that as an insult. It’s just that the sculptures are unsophisticated as works of art. If you saw a contemporary figurative marble sculpture titled My Boy depicting a man holding a limp young boy in his arms you would likely categorize it as overly sentimental at best.

Yet, Sawaya has solved a formal problem. A couple of years ago, it did not strike anyone as possible that Lego was a viable material for making sentimental sculptures. In his artist’s statement at Agora Gallery, Sawaya writes, “Currently I am working with the human form, which can represent the everyman and my own metamorphoses, fears and accomplishments. I aim to captivate people and strive to create artwork that is interesting and that is unlike anything they have seen before.” This is the kind of thing that trailblazers of any new artistic medium like to say. It represents the phase of earnestness and idealism. This Lego artist wants to reach out to his fellow creatures in a gesture of shared humanity. Look, he says, I have made this material (plastic interlocking bricks, in this case) expressive in ways that we can all understand. I have made it laugh and cry.

Say what you like, but that’s a big step for Lego. I remember being frustrated with Lego bricks as a child. It was great to be able to build things, but the simplicity of the blocks was a limitation — it was mathematically impossible to make a curve. Every time I tried to make a house it ended up as a multi-colored bunker. That rigidity is, paradoxically, what makes Lego work. Lego bricks manufactured 50 years ago will still fit together with bricks manufactured today. This simplicity and universality is the essence of Lego’s genius. Any dumb toddler can get going with Lego. The primary colors of the basic Lego set add to the simple essentialism.

It has been possible for many years to buy more complicated pieces and specialty sets. But the heart of Lego is a yellow rectangle that snaps into a red rectangle. That satisfying snap as the two blocks become one is the sound of Lego’s now immortal soul. It’s no wonder that this simple product comes to us via a little village in Denmark. Ole Kirk Christiansen, the inventor of Lego, hailed from Jutland, the area of Western Denmark made famous by the film Babette’s Feast. Jutlanders take their living stark and their Lutheranism straight-up. Ole Kirk Christiansen named the toys Lego as a word trick from the Danish. Lego is a contraction of the Danish words “leg” and “godt,” which translate to “play well.” The purity and universality of the Lego brick is hard-wired into the toy’s DNA, specially designed to please a strict, Protestant God. The firm hand of Danish Lutheranism thus reaches, unbeknownst to most of us, directly from the rural hinterlands of Northern Europe into the living rooms of millions around the world. How can something so rigid in its very essence be made to express the variety of organic life?

We are beginning to find out. Through an imaginative use of multiple layers and graded tiling, the Lego artists of today have worked their way around the formal constraints of that universal brick. As kids, we were impatient. We could never break out of the brutal square geometry that a Lego set imposes. But the pros were willing to take up the challenge. They were going to make the Lego bricks curve and bend without altering the essential sanctity of the brick. Sawaya’s sculptures practically dance on the grave of yesterday’s Lego limitations. There’s nothing, in principle, in the three-dimensional realm that Lego cannot now depict.

Alas, for all of Sawaya’s innovations, we are still stuck somewhere in the realm of stupid. His Lego sculpture “Heartfelt,” for instance, depicts a man ripping his own chest open to reveal a red Lego heart and a pile of white interlocking bricks spilling out onto the floor. What we need now is a new crop of Lego artists who can take up Sawaya’s set of formal techniques and go nuts. We need someone willing to do something genuinely disgusting or offensive with Lego. Or perhaps there’s a Lego Mapplethorpe out there who can explore the beauty of vulgarity one square fist at a time. Or maybe an Otto Dix who simply thinks poorly of human kind in general and is willing to express the ugliness and violence in the hearts of men via Lego. We need an infernal Lego landscape, a vast room filled with pestilence and war as only Lego could portray it. We need a life-sized installation, an entire functioning house constructed entirely with Lego that is then used as a methadone clinic. We need a Lego whorehouse. We need a tiny, exquisite object made of Lego bricks cut from diamonds. We need someone to have Lego surgically implanted into their own body. We need something wonderful made of Lego, some ocean-going craft that appears on our shores like a messenger from another universe that only Lego understands. The craft stays for one week and then goes away, disappearing one morning never to be seen again. • 7 April 2010