No childhood is complete without Lego. Seriously- show me a child who has never been gifted an assortment of oddly colored geometric blocks, toon-like men with interchangeable heads, and settings as diverse as pretty much any geek-related world or interest, and I will show you a child deprived of one of the great joys of growing up. For many children of the 80s onward, Lego wasn’t just a part of being young, it was probably the best part of being young.
Now, while you’re recalling fondly those memories of days spent building houses (or if you were me, castles) and monsters, expressing your creativity with snapping plastic pieces, take a look at this:
Yes, that is a Moai head. And yes, that is made entirely of Lego blocks.
This feat of plastic engineering mastery is one part of the utterly fascinating exhibit “Art of the Brick,” currently on location at Discovery Times Square. While not the kind of art one would typically expect from a gallery show, this exhibition is easily one of the most ambitious, and satisfying, displays of artistic merit currently in New York. (and easily overshadowing its neighbors, Bodies and Shipwreck.)
The brainchild of lawyer-turned-artist Nathan Sawaya, Art of the Brick is both a labor of love and creativity. Artist Sawaya, discontent with his career as a corporate attorney, began assembling these masterpieces in 2002, and has since transformed his passion into a full-time career. Just how much he devotes to the pursuit of plastic potency is evident from the moment one walks into the gallery space, greeted by a lifelike “hand” holding an ever-so-small red brick.
This sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit, as viewers are led through a portrait gallery, sculpture garden, and down a set of stairs (underneath a Lego Earth) towards the more “experimental” sections. It’s clear the Sawaya “gets” both his medium, and his inspirations, as those early galleries showcase both the original work, and his “take” in bricks on the piece. Formerly flat images “jump out”, given serious 3-D treatment at times, highlighting how well Sawaya understands the scope and execution of his imagination. Simply taking single look at his version of Hokusai’s classic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” or his eye-popping rendition of the sigil of St John confirms this, as both are incredibly accurate, but successfully utilize the texture of the Lego bricks to stand out.
In the next room, his tribute to classic sculpture contains the aforementioned Moai head, and also a Buddha, Jomon period clay doll, and an androgynous replication of Michelangelo’s David, done is perfect scale to the originals. While this might not sound all that impressive, think for a moment about the time and energy that must go into creating such textured figures, using nothing but pre-cut blocks and an eye for layout. Making even one would be a challenge for any of us. Sawaya created all of them, and then some.
Now admittedly, I’m no serious art critic. I like sculpture, and can appreciate the labor that goes into crafting a solid model. But some of the pieces that line the exhibit have their own emotion attached- be it through lighting or sound (both of which play a role in the later galleries), or simply the construction of the specific piece, each one looks less like a “cluster of bricks,” and more like an independent entity. Knowing that these pieces were crafted from the same Lego bricks that many children the world over play with only enhances the impressiveness of the galleries.
Yes, that is a T-rex skeleton made entirely of Lego.
If there was one flaw to the entire experience, it’s that it’s too short. I found myself thoroughly entranced throughout my tour, and even went so far as to go through it three times, backwards and forwards, trying to catch each subtle variation and captured movement. The images I’ve elected to include here hopefully show that, because this is not a type of art that is easily captured- it needs to be seen with one’s own eyes, if only to verify that yes, these are Lego bricks.
The final room in the exhibition is devoted to other artists- both children and adult alike- who have been inspired by Sawaya’s work towards creating their own Lego masterpieces. From the minimalist to the ambitious, each one holds the spirit of the exhibit true-to-heart, and shows that anyone- not just a single artist with a dream- can craft and create what they see in their own heads.
Art of the Brick is currently appearing at Discovery Times Square. It also has the good fortune of being located near the Toys R Us, in case the inspiration drives you to create your own sculptures.