Visual Arts

"Nathan Sawaya: An American Legocy" at Mesa Contemporary Arts Plays It Safe

If the Nathan Sawaya exhibit at Mesa Contemporary Arts is underwhelming, it's only partly because there's so little of it.

"People keep coming up and saying, 'Is that all?'" the nice woman at the front desk told me when I stopped to ask if I'd somehow missed a big hunk of the Sawaya exhibit. "Especially women with children. They come out here expecting to see Legoland, and all we've got is the one room."

Sawaya is known as "Lego Man," because his artwork is made entirely from the little plastic interlocking blocks that most of us played with as kids. Both his choice of medium and his skill with it have made Sawaya a star in the worlds of both art and pop culture. But Sawaya is selling something more than nostalgia for old playthings — his work often depicts deeply disturbing images of great pain and despair: a big yellow man ripping open his own chest, his head tilted in a howl; a figure carrying the lifeless body of another; a man frozen inside a giant ice cube.

The tension created by depicting all this angst with a child's toy is missing from the Mesa show, a theme exhibit depicting some of the safer corners of '60s pop culture. "Nathan Sawaya: An American Legocy" plays it safe and is, therefore, not especially interesting.

I was hoping to see Grasp, which depicts five long arms emerging from a field of gray, holding at bay a malevolent, bright red figure, his face contorted into a scream. And where was Hands, a disturbing and elegant sculpture of a man kneeling before a pile of Legos that once made up his own hands?

Not in this compact exhibit, which fills one small gallery room. A stunning triptych of portraits of rock 'n' roll icons Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix is the high point. There's some real grace and subtlety here — Sawaya's skill at crafting the rounded contours of the human face; the fact that the Dylan portrait is done in black and white while the other two, long deceased, are depicted in deep blue bricks.

The rest of the show, for the most part, lacks that angsty creativity and demonstrates mostly that cool things can be made from Legos — something any third-grader can tell you. Large peace symbols in one corner of the gallery and splashed across a nearby wall display Sawaya's strong sense of color but, in an exhibit this small, take up far too much room. American Flag, which depicts a torn Stars & Stripes, is another ho-hum icon meant to remind us of the wartime turbulence of the '60s. Captain America, in the center of the room, is a replica of Peter Fonda's Harley from 1969's Easy Rider, commissioned by the Center to coincide with its concurrent chopper-themed "Radical Rides: The Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit. It's another technically excellent but otherwise lackluster piece.

What's on display in Mesa is only half as interesting as Sawaya's newest installation in New York's Times Square: A life-size figure made entirely of transparent Legos called Melting Man, which is lit from within and depicts a fellow who's slipping away into a puddle — a compelling piece that recalls ice sculpture and is as stunning as it is kitschy. But the family-friendly Sawaya show in Mesa offers no depth of commentary on the decade it depicts and, aside from wowing us with this artist's way with a box of building blocks, has little to offer.

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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