With the way artist Nathan Sawaya sees himself, you’d think he was a guinea pig in some mad doctor’s experiment in a ‘30s movie. In his self-portrait – one of the first pieces you encounter in his new exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood – bolts of lightning extend from his head in a dozen directions. They represent different shards of ideas, perhaps, bursting out of his active cerebrum faster than he can complete them. His fingers rest on his chin, his mouth agape, suggesting a look of figurative shock to go with the literal shockwaves flaring behind him.
The look – mouth open in disbelief – also accompanies first-time viewers of Sawaya’s work, astounded that his intricate sculptures (not to mention that self-portrait) are made entirely out of LEGO toys. A former New York lawyer-turned-artist who has appeared on “The Late Show,” “Good Morning America,” “The Colbert Report” and other programs to exhibit and even build new pieces, Sawaya first exhibited at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood in the summer of 2008. The show became the highest-attended exhibition in the venue’s history, and his current show, “The Art of the Brick,” is the artist’s second return to the center.
There was a time when Sawaya’s work had the appeal of a novelty – a fad that would probably die off in a few years. But as the artist’s star has continued to rise, his immense LEGO constructions have transcended their novel gimmick, earning him a proper place in the modern sculptural pantheon. The scope, detail and curvature evident in most of the selections in “The Art of the Brick” boggles the mind. His portrayal of Mount Rushmore is a studious and faithful recreation of the iconic monument, and unlike the similar structure at LEGOLand in California, Sawaya even constructed the stone base out of LEGO in addition to presidents’ heads. My favorite piece is the ravishing “Pop-Up Book:” a 3-D castle sprouting from a giant tome, framed by poetry, written by Sawaya, on either side. The ambition is staggering.
Sawaya’s work vacillates between child-friendly whimsy and angst-ridden adult existentialism, an all-encompassing demographic that few artists are able to master convincingly. “The Art of the Brick” includes impressive, if fairly straightforward, reproductions of cats, skateboards and baseball bats, but the sculptures that linger the most are the denser pieces. “Yellow” depicts a disemboweled figure, his entrails spilling from his gut in a heap of yellow LEGO. In “Hands,” a gray figure’s titular appendages have fallen off, lying beneath it in piles. I can’t be alone in seeing these pieces as a comment on war and its heartbreaking casualties.
Elsewhere, we get “Blackwhite,” a post-racial sculpture of black and white LEGO men joined as one, along with several close-ups of figures’ heads bisected and trisected, bringing me back to the old science-fiction conceit. Sawaya is always playful, regularly thoughtful and possibly even devious, but one thing is for sure – he drills into our heads and stays there, waiting for us to absorb the next shock.
“The Art of the Brick” is at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., through Aug. 19. Admission is $6 to $10. Call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org or brickartist.com.