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The Art and Culture Center of Hollywood is typically a pretty quiet place. There are no security guards patrolling the four downstairs galleries, just a volunteer staffing the front desk and at best a handful of visitors. Not so on a recent Saturday, when the place seemed to be crawling with children.
The draw is "Nathan Sawaya: Replay," a sequel of sorts to a 2008 exhibition that attracted more visitors than any other show in the venue's 30-year history. This return engagement by Sawaya, a lawyer turned artist, will no doubt prove similarly popular, for the disarmingly simple reason that Sawaya works exclusively with Legos.
The Art and Culture Center follows "Replay" in the middle galleries with a small group exhibition, "adaptation," in which the artists work with recycled materials. But aside from Rosemarie Chiarlone's intricate combinations of fine-mesh wire and embroidery and Xavier Cortada's watercolor-style paintings using melted sea ice from Antarctica, the show feels halfhearted, especially after Sawaya's ingenuity.
His use of Legos has to rank him near the top of any list of contemporary artists using unusual media. Damien Hirst has his sharks in formaldehyde, Chris Ofili has his elephant dung — and Nathan Sawaya has his Lego bricks.
The "wow" factor kicks in soon after you set foot in the center's main gallery, which is dotted with more than two dozen pieces, both freestanding and mounted on the walls. You'll probably realize immediately that the works closest at hand have been crafted from Legos, prompting a spontaneous "Cool!" As you then take in the farthest-flung ones and register that they too are Lego-based, there's a good chance you'll clock a "No way!" Way.
There's a whole far/near aesthetic at work with Sawaya. From a distance, it seems the artist has pulled off the impossible, creating rounded contours using little more than tiny plastic squares and rectangles. Take the life-sized Cello on the far side of the gallery, with its familiar graceful curves. It's Lego, all right: 6,540 bricks, to be exact. A bit of text informs us that the sculpture was completed in a week. Or get a load of the hybrid bicycle that makes up Endless Fun — it's half real bicycle parts, half Lego bricks, so seamlessly blended that, from more than a few feet away, you'll have a hard time telling which is which.
And so it goes in work after work. Solar System captures the sun and planets, topped by Pluto, which Sawaya charmingly restores to planet status for sentimental reasons; the whole piece is made up of an astounding 22,940 bricks. Pencil Yes gives us a 90-inch-tall pencil conjuring the word yes up near the ceiling. The imposing Queen and Pawn appear to be escapees from some larger-than-life chess set.
In a refreshingly straightforward artist's statement at the beginning of the show, Sawaya writes: "The fundamental purpose to my art is to captivate people for as long as I can keep their attention. I strive to create artwork that is interesting and that is unlike anything they have seen before."
Judging from the reactions of the aforementioned children, I'd say Sawaya has succeeded. The only other time I've heard such squeals of delight echoing through the galleries is when the center holds its annual Abracadabra art raffle. The real challenge, with the current show, is convincing the kids to keep their hands off the art. Despite the presence of "DO NOT TOUCH" signs everywhere, the tiniest tots have a hard time containing themselves when so much fun is so close at hand. A couple of roving volunteers gently but diligently remind them to refrain from touching.
It's hard to suppress that impulse to reach out and touch. When the urge hit, however, I shifted my focus to the more adult aspects of Sawaya's art. The emotionally charged My Boy, for example, consists of two near-life-sized figures in a pose that might have come out of Greek tragedy. A man holds a crumpled smaller body in his arms as he falls to his knees and cries out to the heavens, as primal an image of inconsolable loss as you could imagine.
Three other works hint at the scope of Sawaya's art. They're essentially "paintings" in Lego, with the artist using flat surfaces and remarkably subtle combinations of various-colored Lego bricks to summon up the nuances of the human face. As with the sculptures, these readily fool the eye from afar only to reveal their secrets when you get closer.
Another three pieces allow the artist to dabble in autobiography, Lego-style. The all-blue Cracked might be seen as the artist in his lawyer days, a man literally breaking apart under pressure. Yellow takes the form of a man ripping his own chest open, with countless little yellow bricks spilling out. And finally, Building Red is a portrait of the artist as a self-made man in which he reconstructs himself using Legos. Taken together, the three works chronicle an impressive metamorphosis.