First published on The Public Reviews website.
Is it art, that is what a lot of critics will be asking of Nathan Sawaya’s Lego sculptures that take in a broad range of influences from classic artists to dinosaurs, is it art? So, let’s be clear about this from the beginning, yes it is. If an artist creates something that provokes a reaction from the audience, makes you think or feel something based on the form in front of you then an artistic exchange is taking place. In some ways The Art of the Brick links back to the Pop Art idea of taking a mundane item and repurposing it into something beautiful, and in this exhibition Sawayer has used the humble two by three plastic block to think more widely about the human condition.
The first room is a clear challenge to the naysayers by showcasing some of the world’s most famous sculptures and paintings in Lego form. From a to-scale model of Rodin’s The Thinker (4332 bricks) to the Venus de Milo (18,483 bricks) and Michelangelo’s David (16,349 bricks) the technique here is impressive conveying both the sculptural feel and imposing grandeur of the original works. Taking this a stage further, there is a section of famous paintings including stunning versions of van Gogh’s Starry Night (3,493 bricks) and Munch’s The Scream (3991 bricks) using flat and layered effects to replicate the drama and motion of the paintings. The entirely flat Mona Lisa (4573 bricks) and Self Portrait by Rembrandt (1948 bricks) are perhaps slightly less engaging but no less skilfully realised. Each is accompanied by a small digital display giving some history of the art work and the process of re-imagining it in Lego written by Sawaya – a welcome personal touch.
Having now legitimised Lego as a medium, the rest of the exhibition is full of innovative and engaging works celebrating the everyday, the absurd and the intense. Many of the pieces are inspired by a particularly aspects of humanity, such as coping with daily struggles, fears, despair or hiding behind masks. My Boy (22,590 bricks) was created from a real story told to the artist and shows a blue figure carrying another prostrate in its arms, beautifully conveying loss and pain. Similarly Despair shows a hunched grey figure clutching its head in its hands as a child might do which again is very affecting. By this point in the exhibition the fact it is all made of Lego no longer matters, you start to see the pieces for themselves and the meaning they represent.
These is also plenty of fun and innovation on show including works like giant pencils, a cello, the earth, traffic lights in the shape of faces and an enormous dinosaur skeleton which took Sawayer a whole summer to build from over 80,000 bricks. There is a beautiful swimming figure half-revealed above the rippling water that took 15 days to create, and a clever nod to the exhibition’s current UK base in the final room with a red telephone box, Keep Calm and Build On poster and four slightly well-known musicians immortalised in Lego-form – The Beatles.
The Art of the Brick is a nicely varied exhibition balancing the fun of Lego building with more intense pieces that belie their component parts. Using a child’s toy to comment on complex adult emotions is an interesting concept and there exists a fascinating contrast between the medium and the mood, so expect to be in awe of the creativity on show. It is an exhibition about Lego so most will love the very idea of it, leaving the visitor free to enjoy the skill and sense of fun with which these pieces have been created, but expect to also be engaged emotionally. It may be Lego, but it is definitely art.
The Art of the Brick is at the Old Truman Brewery until 4 January. Tickets are £14.50 with concessions available.