The first time I read the name Nathan Sawaya was on a press release, re-printed from a forwarded email and placed in my hands. His art exhibition in the Carnegie Science Center was one of the many things I had to cover that day for the local TV news station where I work. According to the release I skimmed, he made art out of LEGO bricks. I didn’t think much more than, “hmm, sounds interesting.”
I quickly got B-roll while being whisked through the gallery by the Science Center staff, with barely enough time to really take a close look at the pieces. I was absolutely stunned by what I was seeing, however. Sawaya himself was at the grand opening of Pittsburgh’s installation of the travelling exhibition, and I happily got to interview him. His work is world famous, but he didn’t seem to carry any pretenses of inflated importance. I could tell he was an artist who wanted to inspire joy and creativity, especially in young people. Each piece is held together by adhesive he places between the bricks as he builds, which makes transporting them from city to city, country to country that much easier.
After the interview, I knew I needed to come back as a patron and that Maura’s younger brother, Daniel, had to be with us. The Art of the Brick was a way to lure him to our city for the weekend, and it worked.
Tickets to the exhibition are purchased at the front desk for a specific time slot. The $19.95 non-member price may seem steep, but bear with us – it’s worth every penny. After a brief video explaining the origin and creation of LEGO brick art, you are ushered into the first gallery room full of LEGO recreations of famous paintings and sculptures throughout history. Van Gogh, Degas, da Vinci, Michelangelo, ancient art, and many more are all meticulously recreated and slightly “remixed” in Sawaya’s own ways. Van Gogh’s The Starry Night is beautifully texturized by looking down from the Y-axis of the LEGO plane, with pieces at different heights from the front of the canvas, mimicking the Dutch post-impressionist painter’s signature brush strokes.
The classic recreations reel the audience in, and prime them for what’s next – Sawaya’s wholly original LEGO sculptures. Each piece has meaning, almost exclusively uplifting and positive, and he loves to play with color, lighting and perspective to convey his messages. One piece, when viewed across the room (thus, compressing the Z-axis, like a telephoto lens) shows the likeness of an eye. When viewed from a few feet away, where all three dimensions are expanded, the eye becomes unrecognizable and the piece takes a completely different form and display. Much of his artwork takes the shape of human, android-like forms rendered in one, striking color. The lighting makes each color explode with vibrance off of the black walls and dark enclosure of the gallery. Each piece commands your attention, and the knowledge that every one is made out of LEGOs reminds me that this is some kind of meta Pop art. Instead of depicting imagery from popular culture, like Pittsburgh’s own Andy Warhol, Sawaya literally created his art from one of the world’s most popular and recognizable toys.
Why do we feel this gallery is worth every penny of admission? One reason is that the art, medium and message is accessible to everyone. You don’t need an art history degree to comprehend or appreciate what you’re looking at. The titles and descriptions of the pieces are delightfully clear and free of obtuse art terms. That’s not to say we don’t think art historians wouldn’t have a blast here either, but the gallery definitely has an air of innocent, childhood curiosity. I sensed a theme of looking inside oneself and not being afraid of what is within, even if it’s scary. There’s plenty of skulls and faces, perhaps invoking an emphasis on identity, both on the surface and beneath.
The last room of the exhibition had some cool, large format photographs lining the walls, with LEGO objects “hidden” within them. The photo nerd in me geeked out a little on this sort of mixed media presentation of his work.
Finally, Sawaya created his own Pittsburgh inspired piece exclusively for the Science Center exhibition, but we won’t give it away here. It stands at the entrance to a large room overlooking the gallery, where there’s plenty of LEGO building stations for kids to create their own art. I’ve been visiting the Science Center since it was built in 1991 and I was five years old. Later in my life and looking back, I see it as a beacon of hope and a reminder that the younger generation’s future is bright, as long as we foster the creativity and wonder that accompanies Science and this incredible symbiotic fusion with art. The formulaic, mathematical, pixelated, and 90-degree angled world of LEGOs is somehow impossibly formed, bridging the gap to the subtle abstractions and meanings in the world of Art.
The Art of the Brick will be at the Carnegie Science Center until January 7th, 2019.