Abstracting the LEGO Brick

It remains somewhat of a novelty to see a LEGO creation that isn’t representational; you could spend a long time searching and still only turn up a handful that can truly be called abstract. Are LEGO creations predestined to be models of something, and if not, what does it take for them to shed this proclivity for representation?

Nathan Sawaya in his The Art of the Brick[i] exhibition explores some of the issues relating to the representational capacity of LEGO bricks. By taking a selection of the most famous pieces of work from the history of art and rendering them in brick form he challenges the line between the authenticity of the fine arts and artworks made from LEGO bricks. The process becomes even more pointed when he chooses a painting like Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss[ii], a work widely regarded as paving the way towards the development of abstract art in the 20th Century. If Sawaya’s recreation in bricks is making a representation of something supposedly abstract, does it negate Klimt’s original process of abstraction?

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The Kiss by Nathan Sawaya

 

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The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

The critical significance of brick-rendered representations of abstract art is expanded further in another of Sawaya’s creations from the same exhibition. By taking Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Fountain[iii] a “ready-made” artwork that constituted the placement of an actual urinal in an art gallery, Sawaya intervenes in the game that the original plays. Duchamp’s ready-made artworks have been both celebrated and reviled by critics for their alteration of the art landscape. Ready-mades ushered in an era where selection and presentation of ideas challenged that of the artistic craft of representation that preceded it. Fountain issues a challenge to its viewers to elevate it to the status of an artwork. If we accept that the viewers’ power to name an everyday object “art” becomes in actual fact the artwork for Duchamp, it creates a trap for its audience. The urinal must always remain “not-art”, otherwise the process of transformation cannot take place. To take Duchamp’s Fountain seriously, which it is obvious that Sawaya does, we have to find another strategy other than that of giving it the name “art”, or fall foul of the snare that has been laid for us. This is where Sawaya finds his stride, in that the reconstruction of Fountain as a model comments both on this conundrum as well as creating a new artwork; Fountain is an artwork because it inspires new artworks. Sawaya, in his confrontation with Duchamp, achieves a rare creative win: the coup de grace coming in the form of his brick-built rendition of Duchamp’s “R. Mutt” signature which gave pseudonymous artistic verification to the work, but now exceeds forgery as an original creation in its own right.

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Fountain by Nathan Sawaya

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Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

The broadsheet reviews of Sawaya’s exhibition often reduced its value[iv] to that of novelty and spectacle, but for me his engagement with both the history of art and the innate representational potential of LEGO bricks suggests that they have overlooked the subtlety of the intellectual thinking behind his staggering building skill. It also provides a springboard for thinking further about the challenges of building truly abstract LEGO artworks.

Perhaps Sawaya’s highlighting of the pure representational power of LEGO bricks asks us to think what would need to occur to suspend this power? The art critic and theorist Clement Greenburg attempted something similar when he tried to define what within painting could escape its representational potential – even its own signification as paint. Coining the term “post painterly abstraction” in his 1964 foreword to the exhibition of the same name[v], which featured work by artists like Ellsworth Kelly,  he suggested such a project to be possible. The term was used to define those works where the brush marks and expressive nature of paint was removed, along with representational content, to leave canvases that advocated pure colour, graphic line and the other formal aspects of a composition. For Greenberg this approach provided a unique clarity, freshness and openness.

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Red Yellow Blue White by Elsworth Kelly

The question is, can a LEGO creation follow this line towards pure abstraction? Is it possible to remove the quality of a LEGO brick from a LEGO artwork? We find a problem when we attempt this and reduce a brick-built model to its most basic components. When you thin paint out and apply it flat and evenly, it suspends its fluid oil based origins and becomes, for the viewer, pure blue or green or grey. Yet, when you reduce the LEGO artwork to a pile of bricks, each brick remains an object in its own right – a LEGO element. A 2×4 red LEGO brick is never reduced to the qualia of red (the pure sensation of colour), always remaining instead a plastic building block. Like Duchamp’s urinal a LEGO brick remains itself and not an abstract idea such as a colour or shape, precisely because it always announces itself as something that can be transformed into a representation of something else.

This is realised when a LEGO builder tries the same exercise as an abstract colour field painter who tries to present the contingent quality of a colour in a single-toned painting. The LEGO artist who tries to build an expression of the brick ends up, as in the case of Luc Byard’s Self Fulfilling Prophecy[vi], building the medium with the medium. Byard claimed that by making LEGO bricks from LEGO bricks he was evidencing a non-artistic and pointless exercise; that for LEGO bricks to be “art” they had to represent something else other than themselves. However, the piece fails to be “non-art”, working more as a comment on the inescapable representational power of the form, producing something akin to the graphic painting of a brush stroke by the pop artist Lichtenstein[vii].

 

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Self Fulfilling Prophecy by Luc Byard

Brushstroke 1965 by Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997

Brushstroke by Roy Lichtenstein

However the brick-built brick, unlike the painted brush stroke, surpasses its status as comment. As LEGO bricks are enlarged, they remain no less LEGO elements, as is evidenced in big building projects where bricks made from other bricks are used to scale up a model from a smaller version. In seeking to reduce the LEGO brick’s representational power to a representation, its functional application remains active.

All of which leads back to what might be an obvious fact about the LEGO System: that it is just that, a system. In fact one could say that bricks are words in the LEGO building language, which reiterates a point I have made elsewhere[viii]; that the LEGO System is best understood as a language. Once recognised as such it becomes clearer as to why it proves difficult to use it to create truly abstract or non-representational models.

Languages are essentially linked to a capacity to construct meaning. Music, painting and sculpture have a figurative quality: a material presence we might think of as sound, colour or the contingency of marble or clay. Whereas they allow us to feel rather than rationally understand them. LEGO artworks are less well equipped to do this, instead inviting us to understand according to the way they are made from individual elements.

Despite an initial similarity at the surface level between a LEGO artwork and a sculpture, it shares more in common with poetry. It requires the physical grammar of associating – literally clicking together – semantic elements. Just as is the case in verbal or written language, the meaning or usage of any given word is not irrevocably set and is free to be revalidated in the context of its use: metaphor being the obvious way of achieving this. LEGO elements share this innate capacity for analogy with language. A “window brick” is only ever a window as long as it is used as such; it might equally be used as a door, an eye or part of a spaceship’s fuselage. Sometimes, in the case of a builder like Colin Hemmen[ix], it is all of these things at once.

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Untitled Composition by Colin Hemmen

Yet language can challenge its representational tendency when it carries out experiments with its structure. As is evidenced in the experiments of modernist literature and poetry, the unexpected and often incorrect pairings of meanings combined with unusual rhythms, reductions and repetitions can create new abstract forms of expression; the grammatical experiments of Gertrude Stein or the reduced form of late Samuel Beckett being exemplary cases.

LEGO creations, if they are to achieve a similar development into the non-representational, will need to understand and challenge their grammatical form in a correspondent way. This is often seen unexpectedly at the point where builders forsake traditional building aims and explore new techniques. LEGO bricks are designed to fit together in a set of standard ways dependent on the placement of studs, hinges and clips, but with the use of repetition and subtle placement of elements in ways that push the bricks beyond their original use, new connections can be made. A creation can be developed in this way that appears to challenge the rules of building, making straight bricks bend and non-connecting elements tessellate.

Richard Selby’s Spiral[x] is a case in point. As a building experiment it uses the generation of internal forces to create a curved tension that in turn produces an elegant abstract form. With the addition of a carefully aligned colour blocking technique to highlight its dynamic nodes, the model enforces a self-referential explanation of itself.

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Spiral by Richard Selby

Similarly when a builder like Katie Hall explores a process such as mosaic building[xi], these experiments generate complex abstract patterns. By ignoring the necessity of snapping elements together, the perfect alignment of angles can be exploited in a manner that is at once rebellious in its breaking of the traditional grammatical rules of LEGO building whilst simultaneously exaggerating the beautiful ratios and angles inherent in the pieces.

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Mosaic by Katie Hall

What both Hall and Selby’s works reveal is that by focusing in on building technique a LEGO artwork can divert our expectations away from what it represents by letting its technique become its content.

However an issue arises from the uses these new techniques are put to. Whilst an abstract form is created in these processes, the implication is that they are being developed merely to further representational building. One can’t help thinking that Hall’s mosaics should be used to embellish the interior of a LEGO building. Similarly, the experimental bending of bricks by Selby could be used to build all manner of representational models that require a curved structure.

This transition from pure abstract experiment to representational expression can most commonly be seen in the building that takes place in a “brick pit”: a regular activity at LEGO shows where the public are provided only with the 2×4 brick in a single colour, but in vast quantities. The limited range of pieces encourages abstract approaches to building, with people tending to make according to the abstract rules of repetition and pattern construction. However, as the models come to fruition, often without intention they result in architectural tropes. The patterns become windows; the rows of bricks become towers; the pyramids become pitched roofs. Once more the representational nature of bricks discloses itself.

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Brick pit fun

The component that is perhaps missing in all of these works is an idea of an image; that when pushed the grammatical structure of LEGO building can open up something poetic, unexpected and unique outside the frame of us becoming more sophisticated users of the LEGO language. Michael Brennand-Wood’s[xii] relief The Search for the Lost City of LEGO, produced as part of the 1988 show The Art of LEGO[xiii], achieves just such a poetic coherence. Here, an unusual language is used where bricks are selected as individual elements and layered along with intersecting twine, familiar in Brennand-Wood’s textile works, not so much as to make a whole as a texture. The result, much like a work of abstract expressionist painting, provides a realm where the eye scans and recognises individual elements, but ultimately is concerned with an encounter through the many visual paths that the linkages in the work make. A yellow ladder literally leads the eye to a red beam or grey cog, and the excitement is in the signposting of these connections through the rhythm and repetition of the pieces. This scanning instantly seems familiar, in that it emulates the scanning of words as we read. In this way the work resists its utilitarian absorption into the canon of technique, instead standing alone as an abstract image, a self-contained visual journey and a work of art.

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Search for the Lost City of LEGO by Michael Brennand-Wood

If Brennand-Wood reveals the poetic and intuitive art of placing bricks together, a builder like Arthur Gugick[xiv] channels another aspect of the LEGO language: its fidelity to the logic of mathematics. Exploiting the ratios and geometric associations which are foundational to the connective potential of LEGO pieces, he uses these basic rules to generate  more complex patterns which we read aesthetically as interesting non-representational compositions. Again an image is formed which resists direct representational focus, channelling instead the fundamental of logic of the LEGO brick itself.

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Geometric Pattern by Arthur Gugick

What qualifies a LEGO work of art as being successfully abstract is its ability to present the language of its construction as a site for contemplation, and not a technique to be learnt. Often to achieve this you need to take the work out of the context of representation and model building. This can be seen in a commissioned work like the one built by Rana Begum for the Surbiton Health Centre[xv]. The work consists of a series of large modulated colour panels built in relief. Acting as architectural detail within this medical environment, the pieces replicate the flow of the designed spaces, but also entice viewers in this space to see in these abstract forms the human scale of the hand that clicked each brick together. This reveals a further aspect of the LEGO language; what at first seems to speak a general abstract language of colour and form in fact echoes a scale and form redolent of the human body. In the surgery surroundings, this nod to the human scale within the formal language of LEGO building mirrors the connection we find between the language of the medical sciences and ourselves as individual patients.

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Surbiton Health Centre Instillation by Rana Begam

The notion of the abstract form in LEGO creations, as shown in Begum’s work, are of a very special kind. They link the logical connections necessary to an understanding of a system to an embodied way of making and interacting with the world.

With this revealed, perhaps we can say more about the LEGO mosaics destined for the interior décor of a minifigure’s house or palace. In these cases, where the mosaic becomes the geometrically designed floor in a LEGO house – an artwork built for minifigures – is it not just another form of the panelled walls of Begum’s health centre installation? With a wink, LEGO bricks seem to inevitably turn us back to representation. The joke is made complete in a work like Art Gallery by Melissa Cabral (LEGO Super Junk)[xvi]. In this case the representation of the human encounter with the abstract artwork is rendered at a minifigure scale, remaining both an abstract artwork and a representation of the encounter with the abstract work.

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Art Gallery by Melissa Cabral

Abstraction in the case of LEGO building is a hard-won aim, and as such it necessarily sits alongside an ever-present power to represent things. However, perhaps because the abstract LEGO artwork must always confront its own nature as a model-making medium, it is to be considered as having a privileged position as a form truly able to comment on what it means to be non-representational. It is this challenge which produces the rare occasions of abstract wonder we find in LEGO works such as Hall’s, Begum’s, Gugick’s, Selby’s and Brennand-Wood’s. No doubt LEGO artists will go on to develop the boundaries of what can be built by continuing these fascinating projects that seek to abstract the brick.

Endnotes

[i] Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick has toured to international acclaim since 2007. Information relating to the show can be found on the artist’s website: brickartist.com

[ii] Klimt, Gustav, The Kiss, 1907

[iii] Duchamp, Marcel, Fountain, 1917

[iv] See for example: Jonathan Jones, ‘Bricking It: Is Lego Art?’, Guardian (2014): gu.com/p/4xz56/sbl

[v] Post painterly Abstraction, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1964

[vi] Luc Byard posted this creation on MOCpages in 2012 as an open discussion piece for the community. You can read the conversation it generated in the comments thread here: http://www.moc-pages.com/moc.php/311343

[vii] Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965

[viii] See my 2015 blog article, The Structural Language of Lego: http://www.buildingdebates.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/the-structural-language-of-lego-a-short-observation/

[ix] See Colin Hemmen’s Instagram page: instagram.com/colinhemmen

[x] See Richard Selby’s Flickr stream: flickr.com/photos/richselby

[xi] See Katie Hall’s blog article on mosaic building: http://www.mosaicbricks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/cheese-slope-mosaics-tutorial.html

[xii]   Michael Brennand-Wood, is a lecturer, curator and artist. He is best known for his internationally recognised and groundbreaking textiles work. Examples of his work can be found on his personal website: brennand-wood.com

[xiii] The Art of LEGO was a 1988 touring exhibition of the UK envisioned by Steve Brake

[xiv] See Arthur Gugick’s Flickr stream: flic.kr/ps/a7ZgW

[xv] See Rana Begum’s personal website, which documents the project: ranabegum.com

[xvi] See LEGO Super Junk’s website: lego.super-junk.com

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One thought on “Abstracting the LEGO Brick

  1. Excellent article. I’ve recently discovered your website, and every article I read is fantastic. Thorough, insightful, and interesting. Thank you for providing a critical eye on our Lego community.

    Like

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