Arts preview: “Think Outside the Brick” presents Legos in new light

  • Photos courtesy of Columbus Museum of Art
    “Bicycle Triumphs Traffic” by Sean Kenney.
  • "Contact 1"
  • “Special Ingredient”
By Columbus Alive
From the November 7, 2013 edition

The first time I realized Legos could be more than just an awesome toy was The White Stripes music video “Fell in Love with a Girl.” Most people saw it as a beacon for the return of rock, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the song itself — a rarity for the band — and was completely blown away by director Michael Gondry’s Lego-animated video.

It turned out people across the world had been using those little bricks to create art for years, and the medium’s respect was rising in the early aughts — much like rock’s theoretical “rebirth” — with renowned artists Nathan Sawaya and Sean Kenney.

Sawaya exhibited works at last year’s inaugural “Think Outside the Brick” and Kenney will present an original Lego work this year. While last year’s exhibit was an expansive look at the many ways artists work with Legos, this year’s is more focused, partly due to space constraints.

“Last year [the museum] wasn’t under construction so we had much more space to fill. It was kind of a kitchen sink show, where I was just grabbing all kinds of stuff,” said Jeff Sims, organizer of the exhibit and creative producer at CMA. “We knew we would have less space, [so] I focused in on which pieces to get. We tried to get the best things.”

Even with the smaller space, the exhibit still offers amazing works representing the assortment of ways Legos can be transformed into art. (Or inspire art, in the case of Jason Freeny’s non-Lego-built sculptures that examine the skeletal system of Lego men.) And that’s the idea. Sims said the focus of the exhibit is two-fold.

The first examines how anyone engaged in the creative process can use any material. Secondly, and specifically in regards to Legos as a material is how these artists can take a commercial product with a clearly intended use and flip it into something else completely.

The most impressive example of this transformation is Mike Doyle, who creates incredibly detailed, hyper-articulated buildings. Doyle’s piece “Contact 1: The Millennial Celebration of the Eternal Choir at K'al Yne, Odan” is an astounding construction of what I like to call Hogwarts in Space. Seriously, that title actually seems appropriate.

The most disappointing aspect of Doyle’s large-scale work — he also has a remarkably realistic line of dilapidated houses — is they only exist in photographs. The materials — Legos — are too expensive for him to keep the projects intact; he needs to reuse pieces for other works. “Contact 1” actually had to be crowd-funded through Kickstarter.

So these gorgeous constructions are photographed — quite beautifully — and disassembled for future endeavors. Attendees can experience a 3-D work by Doyle of a smaller-scale skyscraper; uniquely imaginative like “Contact 1” in that Doyle used the less-traditional “bricks” for its creation.

There are some impressive large-scale Lego sculptures too. The standout is Kenney’s “Bicycle Triumphs Traffic,” a full-size bicycle surrounded by miniature black cars that were created by families at a Lego convention. Kenney is a bike commuter in New York City, making his inspiration obvious while the conversation about the collaboration may not be.

“We point out this was a collaborative piece and ask people how would it be different if he designed all the cars,” Sims said. “How does that change things? What does being a collaborative piece add to it?”

If Doyle and Kenney’s work is powerful, large pieces highlighting the brick, German graffiti artist Cole Blaq’s series “Enter the Brick” is the best example of Sims’ two goals for the exhibition. Blaq set out with the rule of taking a four-by-two Lego and seeing how many ways he could tweak it to create new varieties of the standard Lego. The results are best described as unexpected.

“He answers it in this really creative way where it’s endless; he just cranks these out,” Sims said. “Each one is unique and surprising. Some of them are really weird.”

Other exhibits and activities include the Lego Design Challenge, where the public was asked to create a Lego sculpture with real-world applicability, and a station where visitors can build their own white-pieces-only — to focus on form rather than color — Lego sculptures. Both are located in the Center for Creativity.

Another highlight for “Think Outside the Brick” are two video segments: “Vines” by Mark Weaver and Annette Jung’s Lego-animation of Michael Jackson, akin to that seminal, White Stripes video.