Just in case you don't pick up on it the instant you walk in, the key to "Nathan Sawaya: The Art of the Brick" can be found in a sculpture on the far side of the main gallery. It consists of a roughly six-foot-tall reproduction of a pencil, standing upright and "writing" one word on the big pad at its base: fun, created in graceful cursive script that leaves no doubt about the artist's intent.
The catch, for lack of a better word, is that this piece (titled Pencil Fun), like all of the nearly two dozen works in the show, is constructed entirely of LEGO bricks. Yes, we're talking LEGO, as in the plastic children's toy that has become ubiquitous since it was introduced more than half a century ago. For the past eight years, LEGO has been the medium of choice for lawyer-turned-artist Sawaya, who used nearly a million of the little interlocking bricks for the pieces that make up this crowd-pleasing traveling exhibition.
Fun is indeed the operative word here — there's little hope for you if you can't appreciate the ingenuity, not to mention the sheer exuberance, of Sawaya's creations. Strolling through "The Art of the Brick" is like, well, walking through a toy store. At every turn, there's something eye-popping, and it's hard to resist the urge to reach out and touch the artist's brightly colored sculptures. (Resist you should, however, as DO NOT TOUCH signs constantly remind you.)
According to the wall-text introduction by New York writer Scott Jones, Sawaya's works "defy and celebrate the very medium they're created in at the same time." It's an apt characterization, especially the "defy" part. Sawaya has a great feel for capturing the contours of rounded forms by using slight gradations in the placement of the LEGO bricks — he manages to take the essentially blocky, rectangular pieces and accrue them to summon, say, the curves of human flesh.
Three of the most impressive sculptures do just that, with life-sized human forms that are flat-out amazing. In Grasp, five arms and hands reach out from a slab of gray wall to restrain a neon-red figure. (Sawaya even captures the sense of a mute scream in the facial features.) Mask gives us a full-figured gray man who stands holding in front of him his own disembodied face, rendered in a paler shade of gray. And for the mildly disturbing Hands, another gray man kneels before the piles of bricks that once made up his own hands.
It was perhaps this latter piece that prompted writer Scott Jones, in his introduction, to liken Sawaya to "Frank Lloyd Wright crossed with Ray Harryhausen, or Auguste Rodan crossed with Shigeru Miyamoto." The unfortunate typo — Rodan for Rodin — subverts what might otherwise be a memorable image, leaving us instead to ponder the winged dinosaur that terrorized movie audiences in Japanese sci-fi films of the '50s.
Not that there isn't an element of science fiction to Sawaya's work. For the striking Ideas, the artist envisions a big gray head with removable cartridges of red, blue, and yellow. In the pedestal-mounted Doorway, a doubled-up sitting figure seems to be literally emerging from (or is it merging into?) a green corridor with a door ajar at its opposite end. In general, the smaller-scale figures have a vaguely robotic feel, maybe because the limitations inherent in the medium become more apparent.
Sometimes, Sawaya's whimsy is a little forced. The cityscape of Lonely Night, for instance, with its single light on in one building, lives up to its name too obviously. Likewise, Tiger-giraffe is a one-note joke. He's better when he sticks with the straightforward: the gigantic upturned hand (with pink fingernails!) of Pointing or the candy-colored quartet of oversized title objects in Skulls.
While the LEGO Co. has continued to diversify its products over the years, coming up with ever-more-sophisticated accessories to its basic building block, Sawaya, who buys LEGO bricks in bulk, has stayed with the original. You won't find any little wheels or electronic components here, and that simplicity strikes me as a smart move that keeps him from falling prey to easy gimmickry — he's constantly challenged to find fresh, creative approaches. Did I also mention that his work is just plain fun?
Not long ago, I lamented that gone were the days when the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood played host to multiple shows simultaneously. I complained too soon. The museum's curator, Jane Hart, has wisely opted to supplement "The Art of the Brick" with a second, smaller exhibition, "Child's Play," which, as the title might imply, also complements its companion show and its sense of playfulness.
There are only a dozen or so works by six artists in "Child's Play," but they nicely fill out the center's two center galleries. The most outrageously over-the-top piece is actually by two Miami-based Cuban-born artists, Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz, who work jointly under the punning name Guerra de la Paz. As their mischievously melded name suggests, these two have a sense of play with an edge.
Time Out, which has the smallest gallery all to itself, is a mixed-media installation that at first glance appears to be just an oversized stuffed teddy bear in a cage. Look closely, however, and you'll see that the bear is actually a child in disguise — the kid's shoes can be seen peeking out from under the animal's rear paws. That in itself could be taken as a mild joke, but the real punch line comes when you notice a pile of plastic poop in one corner of the cage, which takes the piece and its title into another realm altogether.
At the opposite end of the long, narrow, adjacent gallery, you'll find equally witty work by Venessa Monokian. Her Snake and Draw are two bits of stop-motion animation run on a DVD loop on a tiny monitor and feature lively performances by such things as a light bulb, a pencil sharpener, and a field of nails. One film also includes a little contraption that appears to have been fashioned from the spray button of an aerosol can and pieces of wire, and it dances around like some sort of demented insect, the likes of which also put in appearances in a suite of five C-prints by the same artist. It's clever, if faintly disturbing, stuff.
For more seriously disturbing effects, step into the center's Project Room, which is currently (at least through June 22, so hurry) home to "Damian Rojo: Feeling Small," a sound-and-video installation using multiple monitors. Its centerpiece is a strobe-like projection that emanates from the rear of the space and passes through several sheer curtains. Set to a rumbling drone of electronic sounds, it's eerily hypnotic and disorienting at the same time. Taken together with "The Art of the Brick" and "Child's Play," it's a reminder that at its best, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood continues to please and surprise.