The effort that goes into contemporary art can be both subtle and obvious. Some conceptual artists may spend weeks or months contemplating art theory and simply thinking before creating the actual piece. Often the resulting artwork has an air of casualness, as if it had been thrown together. Other contemporary artists labor endlessly on their pieces, and the sheer physicality of their art is abundantly clear.
Two shows on view in South Florida clearly fall into the second category. Though Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art and Nathan Sawaya: The Art of the Brick could not be more different, both entail serious physical labor. LeDray is somber and obsessive (he spent three years creating an installation of tiny men’s clothes), bringing to bear the uncomfortable psychic baggage of a true artist. Sawaya is light and family-friendly, a commercial artist who can do nifty things with Lego bricks.
Sawaya’s LEGO creations, incorporating some 500,000 bricks, have become something of a summer ritual at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood; the same show, more or less, was hosted by the museum in 2008 and 2010. A former New York attorney, Sawaya returned to his childhood passion — he made a life-size LEGO dog at the age of 10 — and changed his life in a big way: He has appeared on The Colbert Report, Late Night with David Letterman, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Jeopardy!.
This year’s show entails more than 30 pieces: Kiss, two red torsos locked in an embrace; Rushmore, the iconic monument rendered in sort-of-gravitas gray. Yel low, one of Sawaya’s signature creations, depicts a man pulling apart his chest and revealing LEGO innards. LEGO creations have an interesting shades-of-Tron quality, and it’s fun to see the technical possibilities of the bricks — as with Gray, a man’s face clawing out of a gray wall.
There are some high-art influences at work in Sawaya’s pieces, including Robert Longo’s paintings of executives falling off skyscrapers, Keith Haring’s pop portraits and Claes Oldenburg’s giant-sized sculptures of ordinary objects like flashlights. But the work is best when it doesn’t try too hard: Peace by Pieces, an enormous and crumbling Peace sign, is a tad overreaching. That said, pop LEGO bricks are perfect building blocks for glorifying pop culture: The LEGO skateboard with skull imagery is truly cool.
On an obvious level, the tiny, handcrafted clothes in Charles LeDray: Bass Museum of Art would make good fodder for a Mini-Me punch line in an Austin Powers movie, but LeDray is dead serious, a hard worker and a true artist. Born in Seattle in 1960, he had no formal art training: Early on, he took a job as a security guard at Seattle Art Museum, and in New York, he became an art handler at the Jack Tilton gallery. He got his first break with a group show at the Tilton gallery, proclaiming at one juncture, “There are no ordinary objects. All things have potential.”
The installation workworkworkwork (1991), an elaborate accumulation of clothes, books and shoes, was first exhibited on the sidewalk in Cooper Square. In 2009, LeDray unveiled Men’s Suits at The Fire Station in London, an installation that precisely recreates, in tiny scale, a sad used-clothing store in some grim anywhere-world mall. (The monumental Men’s Suits, three thematically-linked installations arrayed in a triangular formulation throughout a darkened gallery, makes up most of the new Bass exhibition.)