Fun was the word that immediately sprang to mind when LEGO artist Nathan Sawaya first burst onto the South Florida art scene in the summer of 2008. That's when the original "The Art of the Brick" show went on display at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. I remember being happily surprised: Although the artist's raw material was a children's toy, I developed great respect for his craftsmanship and imagination. Two years later, the center showcased more of Sawaya's work in an exhibit titled "Replay."
Fun was in abundance then, when countless kids flocked to those exhibitions, helping make them the most attended shows in the center's three-decade history. Fun was what Sawaya spelled out on a giant LEGO pad with an enormous LEGO pencil, in the piece Pencil Fun. What, after all, could be more fun than an entire exhibition of art crafted almost entirely from LEGO bricks? I had tremendous fun with the first two Sawaya shows.
Now a new version of "The Art of the Brick" is on view at the Art and Culture Center, and it's not just the title that feels recycled. About a quarter of the pieces have been lifted directly from the 2008 and 2010 exhibitions. The four large, flattened, candy-colored Skulls seem eerily familiar, for instance, as does Yellow, in which a near-life-sized male figure rips his own chest open to reveal lots of little yellow LEGO bricks spilling out. Pencil Fun gives way to an Aloha Pencil writing out hello in script. (The 2010 show had a work called Pencil Yes.)
Lonely Night, one of Sawaya's most obvious, heavy-handed works, puts in a reappearance, with its cityscape of darkened buildings illuminated by one tiny yellow light in one window. The big gray head of Ideas, with its interchangeable multicolored cartridges that look ready to snap into the head, represents not inspiration but Sawaya's coasting on previous work.
Although commercially successful exhibitions are sometimes put together and shipped off on tour, raking in money at each museum where they stop, I have to say that in my 15 years of art reviewing, I've never seen a museum bring back the (almost) same exact show twice. Sure, Sawaya threw in a few new pieces this time around (the center confirms that the artist himself selected the current lineup), but the former lawyer has made quite a living for himself in his second career (Sawaya has said that he buys all of his LEGOs and spends six figures a year on those alone), and I wish that he would have put in a little more effort for the institution that has been one of his biggest boosters since he started working in LEGO early in the new millennium.
That said, I understand the museum's need to get paid admissions in the door, and this show, like the third sequel of a Hollywood blockbuster, works perfectly well as mindless summer fun. The kids who are probably its target audience won't notice that it's a little stale.
In the newer pieces, we can see that Sawaya's wit and ingenuity haven't abandoned him. The set of gray presidential heads that make up Rushmore, for example, goes well beyond clever and into uncanny. Likewise, the scale and detail of Skateboard are also impressive. And Despair, with its portrait of a kneeling man in the grips of the title emotion, has some of the emotional charge Sawaya achieved two years ago with the Pieta-like My Boy.
The artist still elicits wows when he "paints" with LEGO bricks, creating portraits that are incredibly subtle in their details and coloration. The kid in me also got a kick out of the nearly three-foot-tall title objects in Crayons, which seem perfect subjects for LEGO art.
But work after work goes untitled, often a sign of artistic laziness; why call a work "untitled" when you can give the viewer a clue about what you were thinking when making it? This time around, "The Art of the Brick" feels like a vague affront to those of us who urged people to take Sawaya's art seriously in the first place. We know he's capable of much more, and a quick visit to his website confirms that he's still doing some eye-popping work.