David Hughes is one of the UK’s most exciting up and coming Brick Artists. Over the past year he has become well known for his sculptures of ballet dancers and recreations of popular cultural icons from Quadrophenia to A Clockwork Orange. I caught up with him to find out what life as a brick artist is like.
David Alexander Smith Over the past year you seem to have really struck out in terms of displaying your work, both as part of the LEGO convention scene, but also beyond that in galleries and art fairs. How has the experience been?
David Hughes Really good. There is a headline note for me, which runs through all of my thoughts on exhibiting and that is the idea of validation and recognition as an artist beyond being a LEGO enthusiast. Does one want their LEGO work to be recognised for its artistic endeavour by people who are not LEGO enthusiasts? Is there a way of getting validation from the wider art world; and do we care and should we care about this? A lot of the LEGO fan community give me the impression they don’t care about this recognition from non-LEGO fans, and I think that is brilliant. I talked to several AFOLs at a show recently who abhorred the idea of what they do being more than a hobby – being judged or monetized in some way and how that would ruin the freedom and joy they have with their hobby and I think that is a really interesting position. However, I do care about a wider validation and want the artistic recognition and that’s why I’ve pushed my work into art fairs for example. So most of my ‘agenda’, for want of a better expression, at the moment, is to do with a drive for a wider, mainstream recognition for LEGO Art.
DAS Perhaps there is something to do with the subject matter of a LEGO creation, for instance your engagement with classic design icons, like the chair series of mosaics, rather than just the technical skill needed to build it, which, rightly or wrongly, defines it as ‘art’ and helps it win the recognition you talk about?
DH Yes, there is subject matter and building style, but also aspects like scale which have as much to do with this notion of recognition. I’ve noticed when talking to non-LEGO enthusiasts, with anything that is toy scale it is difficult to convince them that it is not a toy, even if the subject matter or technical skill is not toy related, and maybe even adult themed. So I do think there is a scale issue: I think LEGO art has to be different in scale to LEGO toys if it wants to be recognised as art.
DAS I agree that not being toy scaled helps, but should it make the difference? In a similar vein the type of bricks LEGO artists use seem important in terms of artistic recognition. Often LEGO artists prefer to use standard bricks in a sculptural way rather than use identifiable specialist elements that resonate with the idea of a toy or play.
DH I think the toy scale issue is only at the moment and should change as LEGO art gets wider recognition. But, it is not so much the suggestion of the toy in non-standard bricks that causes the issue; actually it is a genuine lack of knowledge on the part of the general public that these elements exist and are LEGO bricks at all.
I stopped properly building when I was fifteen. I didn’t touch LEGO bricks again until I bought some LEGO sets for my kids. Initially I didn’t’ understand it, there were too many moulded pieces; it didn’t float my boat at all. So I didn’t ‘find-it’ again as a lot of AFOLs do through contemporary LEGO sets. It was only when I was working on a project on Brick Lane in London a few years later that things changed. I kept going past Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick exhibition. Eventually I went in and it blew me away, especially because of his use of standard bricks.
So I think that a lot of the non-LEGO art world, like myself 6-years ago when I bought my kids sets, simply doesn’t know that these specialist styles of bricks exist, or that adult fans are interested in techniques other than the traditional brick on brick building.
So whilst there is some fabulous material being built by adult fans that use these elements to make technically brilliant, beautiful, artistic creations, there are, unfortunately, a whole raft of people beyond the age of 30 who don’t recognise their work as LEGO and as a result don’t understand it. That’s why I think traditional bricks work better at the moment, in builds that are labelling themselves as art.
And it is important to think about the audience and who you want your audience to be and why you want a particular audience. As I said, I want a wide, art appreciative audience, not just an AFOL audience because I am interested in art and design in the widest context. This means, rightly or wrongly, that I need to somewhat tailor my technique to appeal to a non-LEGO enthusiast audience.
DAS Do you think there will come a time when the public, the wider audience if you like, becomes more receptive to these newer building styles?
DH Yes, definitely. I think there is a time issue, where, maybe in 10 or even 20-years time, when the kids of today are the new art going general public, they will recognise these non-brickish elements as LEGO pieces and these building styles as art and this will change how the general public recognise LEGO art.
There also needs to be a way for a wider range of types of LEGO art to find its way into the mainstream art and design world and a gallery setting. I‘d like to see a show that invites a range of artists, much as Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO book did. Imagine if people who are known as LEGO artists, the crowd pleasers, are shown alongside artists using newer techniques. Nathan Sawaya talks about a movement of LEGO artists, and a curated show could present this movement. Imagine LEGO builders (all of whom I really admire) like Tyler Halliwell, Mike Doyle (himself), Adam Mullins the mosaic builder, Joe Perez and Tim Lydy coming together with more traditional brick-on-brick builders to do something like this. That would be amazing.
It should be something more than a convention; an exhibition with proper branding, design, curation, lighting and wall hanging; a proper level of gallery professionalism and the right sort of canapés at the private view. A proper art event.
DAS. Perhaps the adult hobbyists are as much artists as the self-proclaimed brick artists, even if they don’t identify as such. I’ve often thought that the LEGO scene is an example of contemporary folk art practice. We no longer learn needlecraft and folk singing as part of our childhood, instead we play with bricks, and this informs our adult creative expression.
DH Absolutely. A lot of the models I saw at Brick Live in Birmingham, were as I expected: DC, Marvel, Batman, trains, Star Wars and all the rest. Yet within these creations, especially in the diorama sections, there were quirky things, where the builders were trying out different ideas. They were challenging the rigid structures of the franchises they were representing: twisting a theme and making it personal to them. It was brilliant, a real artistic statement where these creators were saying something beyond the basic expectation of the subject matter they had chosen. This way of working could well be a form of folk art, irrespective of if it is talked about as such.
DAS What has your experience of exhibiting work outside the LEGO hobbyist bubble been like?
DH I’ve shown work at a local art fair and a more contemporary regional art fair. There is also the Boise Art Museum in America that wants to borrow some of my work so I am chatting to them about the logistics of that and Clerkenwell Design Week coming up in May.
People are generally really interested in LEGO Art, which I think comes down to the fact that in the western word nearly everyone knows what LEGO is and probably has a friend or relative who is or was into LEGO building. The comments are typically “wow” and “that’s clever” or “I didn’t think you could do that with LEGO”, rather than just that is beautiful or an interesting work of art. It seemed to be mainly the novelty of the medium that makes people stop and talk and think but then it becomes about the subject and the story of the piece. So it is really interesting that it is working on those two levels – the childlike joy of the remembered LEGO experience and then the piece as art itself. I also think it is important for me, or any LEGO artist to stand there at these art fairs or events and say I am an artist: I say it and so therefore it is. I think the branding of the idea of LEGO as art is valuable to the acceptance process.
DAS LEGO creations do have this unique aesthetic; in that how they were made can be read as a code by anyone viewing them, which as you suggest, can initiate creativity as a response.
DH I know you discussed this in your blog before. I’m fascinated by the ideas you raised there about how we define what LEGO art is. Like other young art forms, for example street art, LEGO art is still identifying itself so I doubt we can currently define what ‘LEGO Art’ is as opposed to ‘Art using the medium of LEGO’. I am really keen that I, and others, embrace the idea of ourselves as LEGO Artists as a definable, recognisable ‘type’ rather than just artists who use LEGO.
What is interesting as well is that there are a whole bunch of LEGO artists that are almost trying to hide the LEGO system, or code as you put it, in their creations. I think they like the idea of building things where you can’t see how it is made. The LEGO fan in me thinks there is something quite cool about this; in the way if you look close enough you can see the joins in their pieces but it comes back to the principle of who is the audience. Will an audience beyond AFOLs take the time to look at, and understand, the incredible technique? It comes back what are you trying to say, if anything.
DAS That idea brings us back to scale. I think the natural scale for a LEGO artwork is when you are able to read the code and the image simultaneously. However some creations are so vast that you can only see either the code or the image one at the time – you need to be right up close to read the bricks in these cases.
DH Exactly, and that is why I build at the scale I do, where you see both image and system at the same time. It’s also why I avoid the smaller scale or a stud-less aesthetic as the majority of people would not read the work in these cases as being made of LEGO bricks. Dirk’s Denoyelle’s stud-less heads for example are technically brilliant and look great, but for the non-LEGO enthusiast they just look like big plastic heads. From a LEGO fan’s technical point of view I love these ways of building, but from an art/design-business perspective, and without us pushing what LEGO Art is to a wider audience, I think we have a few years to go before we are able to make works like this and have them recognised outside the LEGO community.
DAS It seems that you have some very specific criteria in mind when you build. How do you decide what to build, and how does this influence the creative process that follows?
DH One of the things I have done, which is something Nathan Sawaya did, is to make copies of existing traditional artworks. This comes back to the idea of educating the non-LEGO art audience as to what LEGO art can be. Most people know artworks like the Lichenstein I’ve built as a mosaic. They recognise the image, but it is only then when they stop and look closely, or when I stand there and tell them, that they realise that it is made of LEGO bricks.
I find that there is something really good about spotting this process of reinterpretation. It is linked to a certain Pop Art approach; in that I enjoy picking subject matter that is going to be understood by people outside the LEGO fan community as an art form itself. Just as advertising slogans and popular culture were reappraised when they became the subjects of pop art works.
Looking at some of my specific pieces, the Lichenstein for example, is mainly about the technique of translating an image into brick form and inviting the audience to take a closer look. Whereas the Alex head is from the 1972 book cover image of A Clockwork Orange, and is more about the idea of turning a known 2d image into a 3d object. It captures something about the uniqueness of sculpting an object in bricks, which began as a flat print, and seeing how it is turned into a model.
The skulls were a bit of fun, but also again about realising a cultural motif, in this case the festival of the Day of the Dead, in an unexpected medium.
DAS Is your process different when your subject matter is not about translating from an established cultural image?
DH The six dancers, the grey ones, are at one level more about pure brick exploration. They really were all about whether it is possible to take an orthogonal hard brick and recreate one of the most graceful art forms – dance. These sculptures were about using a solid material, an orthogonal building system, to make something graceful and emotional too.
It was quite a technique led investigation. I think they are successful because of the scale and the two-tone approach, which allows them to be obviously LEGO whilst still being read in terms of curves and movement. They are not trying to be scale-model representations of dancers but sculptures that hopefully invoke an emotional response in the viewer in their own right.
DAS It is fascinating that you use the way the works are technically made to activate interest. Is this something you have used in other pieces?
DH The architectural and chair series mosaics use of stripes is perhaps another example. Being an architect myself I find it interesting to turn iconic modernist or brutalist buildings into something that looks like a silkscreen print. Like the reinterpretation of the Lichenstein, these are icons that are recognisable by the art and design world as being ‘classic design’. Using a graphic or lino cut style and the vibrant colours of the LEGO palette presents the buildings in a new way. In these works the designer Morag Myerscough’s use of colour was a great influence.
DAS Where do you see future projects taking you?
DH I recently completed Afternoon of a Faun, derived from an iconic image of the dancer Tanaquil Le Clercq from the 1950s. It is a beautiful and tragic image. The piece is really taking the grey dancer series to the next level, in terms of scale, technique and colour and continuing to explore ideas of presenting emotion.
And I’ve just finished a wall hung sculpture, Leave me alone don’t leave me alone (Blue), which explores ideas and a story around depression and anxiety and I think will be the first in a series. It was a piece I did after writing an article for @inmyheadcase about my own struggles with anxiety and depression. I feel that I have learned a great deal from the work so far and am ready to get more personal, begin to ask more questions and for a new challenge in these pieces.
I’ve also just finished a solo show at Park Theatre Gallery Space in north London, mainly the mosaics but also photos of some of the sculptures; and then I will be participating in Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW) in May. The organisers have approached me and seem excited for me to be involved. They know of me as an architect in the design sense, and I think the idea of one of them, one of their guys as it were, becoming a LEGO artist really appeals to them. I’m also making a new sculpture commission for British Ceramic Tile, one of the CDW sponsors, which will be displayed in their London showroom for the event and then stay there permanently. We are making a short film about the process and inspiration of the piece.
I’ve also recently been invited to exhibit and make a collaborative piece over three days for a cool, contemporary new art fair in London in September. What’s interesting is the organisers really like the idea of us making something with the people attending – we all know this is done at LEGO conventions with the kids with say the Fairy Bricks mosaic or the pumpkin making at last years Brick Live, but we are looking at transporting that idea to an adult, hipster, gallery attending audience, with a subject matter that reflects that context – that’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see where this exposure takes me next.
Discover more at:
Instagram and Twitter – @daveh_design
Clerkenwell Design Week, Platform, House of Detention, 12 Sans Walk,
London EC1R 0AS
23 – 25 May 2017
British Ceramic Tile, London Hub, 26 Seward Street, London EC1V 3PA
23 – 25 May 2017 and beyond