Saturday, April 13, 2024

Sculpted Isolation

Nathan Sawaya’s LEGO sculptures achieve newfound resonance when combined with Dean West’s hyperrealist photography.

Check out the video below for an inside look at the exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood.

Just as it would in nearly any ballroom or Broadway stage or banquet hall or shop window, it’s the red dress that stands out the most in the latest “Art of Nathan Sawaya” exhibition at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. The piece, titled simply “Dress,” is immediately transfixing—a three-dimensional collection of some 20,000 LEGO bricks that, when glued together, magically conveys the sense of a vivid red gown in motion, flowing outward, subject to an unseen gust of wind.

Remarkable in its texture and contours, the sculpture itself is Sawaya’s piece de resistance; word has it Lady Gaga has wanted to wear the thing, which is certainly more appealing than slabs of meat. But just as integral to the work’s significance is the two-dimensional photograph on which it is “based,” or vice versa.

This is Sawaya’s fourth survey at the Art and Culture Center in eight years, but, for the first time, it showcases a collaboration between the LEGO bricklayer and another artist, hyperrealist photographer Dean West. Sawaya and West traveled North America together, looking for desolate outposts of Americana in which to stage scenes of isolation and stasis. Meant to explore the inherent artifice in representing reality—whether through thousands of tiny pixels suggesting a digital image or of thousands of LEGO bricks suggesting an object—Sawaya inserted his work within the context of West’s images, adding sly humor to the existential photographs.

In the case of the “Dress” photo Sawaya’s construction covers a wayward model standing in front of a theater marquee bearing a noirish title: “On the Run.” A late-night snowfall casts a chilly pall over this moody nocturne, and, just off-camera, the red lights of something—a car, a streetlight?—could provide the woman shelter, distress or both.

Like most of West and Sawaya’s wonderful images, it asks more questions than it answers, while effectively conveying, through both natural discovery and photographic manipulation, parts of America untouched by time, progress and technology. In “Tracks,” a seemingly mythical train depot in the arid southwest stands alone in the desert, right behind Sawaya’s LEGO tracks. Sawaya himself stands waiting for a train that will probably never come, donning a cowboy hat and dangling a cigarette from his lips, the very picture of a western movie archetype. In “Bus,” a young woman and an elderly matron stand in front of a Los Angeles building that looks more like a cracked Mexican pueblo, staring in opposite directions and waiting for a bus that, like the train in “Tracks,” might never arrive. A LEGO mannequin—one of two of Sawaya’s sculptural contributions to the piece—hides behind a window in the building, perhaps a remnant of a once-thriving dress shop.

In one of my favorite selections, “Hotel,” a woman and a cleaning lady stand outside a squat, unadorned motel in Anywhere, U.S. Like everyone in this series, they’re waiting for something: Their lovers? Their ship to come in? The rapture? A vintage Cadillac has just pulled up to the building, but of course it bears no license plate; it exists out of time, unidentifiable. Four of Sawaya’s cloud sculptures intermingle with the actual clouds above the hotel; two of them suspend from the Art and Culture Center ceiling, resembling video game clouds that lack only an animated plumber to frolic atop them.

And then there’s “Umbrella,” in which another sad, lonely figure gazes downward. He’s dressed in a fedora and tan trench coat, like a gumshoe of yore. Sawaya’s LEGO umbrella—another burst of popping red, set against the monochromatic scene like the red sweater in “Schindler’s List”—does little to protect him from the streams of rain.

Where is the hope? There’s little of it in most of these paintings. In “Tree,” a woman dressed like a ‘50s housewife clutches a limp hose outside her weather-damaged property, but there’s nothing to water; everything is dead and desolate. Evocations of the Great Recession—the lonely souls left behind in today’s brutal economic climate—are unavoidable, but I see the hope in Sawaya’s contributions to this dynamic partnership. It’s there in every inspiring LEGO concoction, adding a bit of levity and ingenuity to the desperate spaces. The LEGO dog held on a leash by the young woman in “Bus” takes on a more playful dimension in its sculptural form in the gallery. It almost seems alive, while West’s images seem stillborn. The LEGO towel that hangs on a rack in the surrealistic “Pool” photo looks drapy and wet, suggesting the usage that isn’t there in West’s painting.

There are other Sawaya sculptures in this exhibition, pieces created independent of the artist’s work with West. They are undoubtedly impressive, resonating both technically and emotionally, but it’s the work with West that provides the context for the rest of Sawaya’s oeuvre—the physical spaces for his voices in the wilderness, struggling to be seen and heard and felt.

I’m not familiar with West’s archive, but having seen Sawaya’s three other shows in Hollywood, I can assert that the photographer brought out the best in the sculptor. This is the most mature, complex and ambitious work he has yet to deliver in Florida.

“The Art of Nathan Sawaya Featuring In Pieces” runs through Aug. 17 at Art and Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. Admission costs $10 adults and $6 students, seniors and children ages 4 to 17. For information, call 954/921-3274 or visit

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