Visual Arts

Choking Hazard: Legos Come to the Heard Museum

The Legos are back. And, once again, these colorful interlocking plastic bricks and mini-figures are housed at a local museum — this time at the Heard, in an exhibition called "BUILD! Toy Brick Art at the Heard" that's timed, no doubt, to cash in on The Lego Movie, recently released on DVD. Because that, it would seem, is where Legos belong: not on the shelves of Kmart, or in a pile on your child's bedroom floor, but in movie houses and places typically reserved for fine art.

I get it. I really do. It's summertime, and every for-profit venture in the desert is looking to cash in on all that free time that kids are saddled with while school is out. And then there's that unfortunate story about how people in Phoenix are less likely to seek out culture than people in other big cities. So cultural institutions — museums, galleries, the symphony — must, the thinking goes, entice the proletariat with lowbrow entertainments that sell tickets. The larger hope being that people who come for the fun, easy stuff will come back for more challenging things — Renaissance painters, well-tempered claviers, performance artists.

I've never trusted this particular equation, though. I'd like to see a study that proves that booking Crystal Gayle into your symphony season leads to sales of tickets to hear Maxim Vengerov perform Korsakov's Scheherazade. How many among the many thousands of people who came to Phoenix Art Museum this season to ogle Judy Garland's gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz, featured prominently in its "Hollywood Costumes" exhibit, will return, I wonder, to look at next season's Paulo Bruscky survey exhibition?

"Gee, that wasn't so awful," people who visit the Heard Museum this summer are perhaps expected to think about their visit to a place that would never have made it onto their to-do list had it not hosted a months-long exhibit built around a child's toy. "Maybe I'll come back next month and look at the moccasins."

I don't think so. But no one cares what I think. And so we have Legos at the Heard.

I'd be less grumpy about this if we hadn't just had a piece of a touring Lego show pass through town so recently. I reviewed Mesa Contemporary Arts' Nathan Sawaya Lego exhibit in early 2012 and was underwhelmed. One of the pieces from that show, a Lego-built motorcycle called Captain America, is featured at the Heard, as well, shown alongside New York artist Sean Kenney's Bicycle Triumphs Traffic. Is the Sawaya bike a rerun within a rerun or am I just a curmudgeon?

The exhibit does succeed on some levels. It's nice that the Heard continues to program exhibitions for young people, and even while I'm personally tired of Lego art, I think curators Diana Pardue and Caesar Chaves (who's also the museum's creative director) did a fine job tying in children's building blocks with some estimable, Southwest-inspired work from local and Native artists.

Mexican painter Lalo Cota, who's best known here for his many large murals, has created an indoor portrait of Central Avenue traffic cruising past the Westward Ho, the Hyatt, and the Heard itself; the piece is flanked by his Lego sculpture of a low-rider, patterned in Native yellows, oranges, and turquoise. Phoenix artist Dave Shaddix has created a multi-hued mosaic of plastic bricks in homage to Navajo artist Marlowe Katoney's Tree of Life, itself a tribute to the iPhone time-waster Angry Birds. And Phoenix-based Navajo artist Steve Yazzie's warmhearted coyote sculpture, Lego-te, a collaboration with his son Wyatt, is paired with Yazzie's painting The Gazer, which depicts a coyote of Legos gazing at a coyote who's looking out a window at a third coyote in the wild.

But, really? Legos? The four kids in attendance when I visited this exhibition one recent weekday afternoon seemed as underwhelmed by what had been done with plastic bricks as I was. One little boy, strapped into a stroller, screamed because Mom wouldn't let him take apart the Lalo Cota car. Another little girl pointed to the Yazzies' coyote and said, "I made that before." Over in the corner, a bored-looking boy named Marc, who looked to be too old to be playing with Legos, distractedly snapped together blocks while his father looked on.

"What are you making?" Dad asked.

Marc sighed and held up a slab of red and yellow plastic bricks. "It's really nothing," he replied.

I'm with you, Marc.

"BUILD! Toy Brick Art at the Heard"

continues through September 28 in the Lincoln Gallery at the Heard Museum, 2301 North Central Avenue. Call 602-252-8840 or visit

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela