Building a Mystery

Written by Alex Vadukul on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.


The
gray sculpture placed in the Chelsea gallery space is almost as tall as Nathan
Sawaya
. The artist considers the figure of the man, which includes a stiff,
plastic version of his own tousled hair. Unlike Sawaya, however, it looks grave
and depressing. It’s also made almost entirely out of Lego bricks. Faceless and
zombie-like, the statue sports a suit and tie. Most surprising is the fact that
a separate, red figure emerges from the gray sculpture’s belly, seeming to gasp
for air.

Much
of what you need to know about 37-year-old Nathan Sawaya can be found in his
Lego sculpture. He’s an artist who sculpts with the snappable toy blocks—which
display his virtuosic building ability—but his pieces aren’t like the giant
Lego Empire State Building at the FAO Schwartz store in Midtown. Instead, they
are also emotional and psychological—made to provoke, not amuse.

Sawaya
originally made headlines seven years ago when he quit his lucrative job as a
corporate lawyer to pursue his childhood obsession. Ever since then, he has
struggled to be seen as more than a grown man who is good at building with
Legos. Recently, he has started experiencing remarkable success as a legitimate
artist.

Sawaya
has a touring show called the Art of the
Brick
that consistently sells out museums and other venues across the
country. Some of his works have even sold for as much as $25,000. When he spoke
at both the New York and San Diego Comic Con a few months ago, he was shocked
to find the auditoriums flooded with fans. Art students stop by his Midtown
studio to seek advice and learn about his work. For the past two weeks, he has
also enjoyed another milestone: a fine art exhibit at the Agora Gallery.

“That’s
my story,” Sawaya says, gesturing to the gray figure before continuing to tour
his show. He says the current show, which is titled Red, is about repression and feeling trapped. Nearby the gray man
sculpture is a giant gray fist covered with miniature black windows. Between
its thumb and forefinger, a tiny red man struggles to push the fingers apart
before they crush him. “It’s a giant corporate hand,” Sawaya explains.

In
another piece, a red figure holds together the sides of his head in agony as a
crack splits the center of it. The show of Sawaya’s sculpture follows a
narrative arc that builds in intensity. It climaxes when one passes the final
wall to face an elongated, 8-foot red man pushing against the gallery’s
ceiling. The show’s resolution is a smaller red figure calmly ascending
skywards, finally free.

The
most common critique launched at Sawaya’s work is that Lego bricks have no
place in fine art. People are often impressed by his skill, but still dismiss
it as a mere novelty. The idea of Lego as a medium for respectable art is an
impossible hurdle for some.

Cindi
Morrison, the former director of the Lancaster Museum of Art in Pennsylvania,
hosted one of Sawaya’s first museum shows four years ago. She recalls how her
modest museum was suddenly turned into a daily mob scene, with lines reaching
around the block every morning. “I think he’s transcended his work only being
about Lego bricks,” she says. “If you go back to Marcel Duchamp and his use of
the readymade—taking things like tea cups, animal fur, a spoon and reinventing
them—I think that’s what Nathan has done with a 2-by-4 piece of plastic. After
a while, his sculptures just become sculptures. In my opinion, it’s
closed-minded to think otherwise. People need to see past the bricks. If
Christo can be celebrated around the world for covering things in fabric, then
Nathan shouldn’t have a problem creating art out of plastic bricks.”

That
Sawaya’s current show is about repression is no coincidence. Many people were
shocked when he abandoned the safety of the legal profession for Legos, but in
reality, the prospect had been waiting for him his whole life. According to
Sawaya, his passion started when he was 5 years old and was given his first
Lego set as a Christmas present. The next morning, his parents discovered that
their living room had been turned into a Lego city, complete with schools and
“McLego” restaurants. Over the years, Sawaya grew as an artist and excelled in
other mediums, but he always felt he could express himself best through Lego
blocks.

For
years, his art was a source of embarrassment for him. When he was in college,
he would hide his constructions under his dorm room bed. He refused to tell his
girlfriend at the time what was really in the large cardboard boxes he received
every month. Not having enough confidence in his art, Sawaya found success as a
lawyer and kept the brick-building as a nighttime hobby.

Sawaya’s
life changed in 2004 when Legoland announced a worldwide search for their next
Master Builder, the most coveted job in Lego fandom. He beat out thousands of
virtuosic finalists for the $13-an-hour job. His firm granted him temporary
leave for what they (and his fiancée at the time) assumed was simply a “phase.”
After a five-month stint at Legoland, he felt confident enough to start a
website showcasing his more personal artistic work. When the site crashed from
too many hits, Sawaya decided it was time to quit the firm for good and pursue
his art.

He
remembers visiting the 42nd floor of the MetLife building that January to
personally explain to his boss why he was leaving the firm. His fiancée left
him soon after, and he had to move into a more modest apartment. Sawaya admits
that he needed his parents to support him for a time as he began rebuilding
from the bottom up.

After
he finishes walking through the exhibit at Agora, Sawaya waits for his
girlfriend, Courtney Simmons, to arrive. She hasn’t seen any of the works up
until now. Sawaya says he made sure to keep them secret as he built them over
the summer. When Simmons arrives, he takes her through the show, providing
short explanations for each piece. She seems drained by the time she arrives at
the ascending red man. “She cried,” Sawaya says. “That hasn’t happened before.
It’s progress. Now they’re eliciting emotion.” 

There will be a closing reception for Red at Agora
Gallery
(530 W. 25th St.) Dec. 14, with the artist present.

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