The Art Of The Brick: DC Superheroes – Retrospective

The Art Of The Brick: DC Superheroes was an exhibit held in and around London’s Southbank in February 2017 from the American artist Nathan Sawaya, the creative force behind some of the most well known popular culture works of art constructed with standard Lego bricks. Nathan has been working since 2004 from his New York studio and held major exhibitions of his work across the globe including Singapore, Sydney and in 2017 arrived in London with an event focused on the DC comics brand of superheroes and villains. Bringing his approach of creating life sized scaled models of characters, vehicles and comic covers, it was a celebration of the Justice League of champions from their earliest inception and across the era of comic books they have graced the pages upon. Across a variety of scales, poses and circumstance, the characters were presented in moments of brevity and self doubt, their actions and history on the comic page displayed in their original form.

Following its launch in Madrid, the world of the brick formed superhero set up its temporary residency in London’s Southbank, bringing 120 works of art including a scale model of the Batmobile, a personal highlight and favourite of mine. Following a popular and well received reception in 2014 when the original Art of the Brick arrived in the UK, this returning exhibit was focused entirely on the world of the DC superhero, no surprise given the artists fondness for that particular company in his childhood:

As a kid I spent Saturday mornings sitting on the floor playing with LEGO and watching the DC Super Friends cartoons. I would imagine the people in my LEGO city would have super powers and could defeat any evil nemesis – which usually meant my sister’s dolls. So this new collection of artwork is a dream come true for me. It is an honour to re-imagine these seminal characters and stories in a new way, through my medium of choice

DCComics.Com

These exhibits have been a constant and consistent success for the artist, acclaimed by all who have an opportunity to visit during their duration and break the divide that exists between art and its audience by using the medium of lego to create this world of mythical heroes and characters at this particular exhibit but in a wider context, a recognisable and easily accessible toy and turning it into something incredibly impressive. Given the nature of the tool at his disposal, it allows a host of exhibits of the artist to be held across the globe and reach a wide audience with events being held in Brazil, America, England and China as of this article being published. If you have the opportunity I would urge you to visit this talented artist, for now we journey back to 2017 and review the world of the DC superhero in plastic form.

The display begun with an introduction to the artist and the inspiration behind the exhibit, a nice touch before you entered the recognisable comic book form of the Joker sitting in his trademark purple suit. It was an informative introduction to this artist and included one of his most well known pieces of the yellow lego bricked man pulling his chest open and other pieces spilling out. On this occasion, given the nature of the exhibit, his face was ‘adorned’ in the white makeup of the Joker, a fun touch and given this exhibit as opposed to the main Art Of The Brick display a personality of its own. From there, you emerged into a display of work dedicated to the Flash. I appreciated the fact it made use of the walls and surroundings to create the light effect in his wake as he ran, consistently throughout the exhibit the backgrounds and surrounding environment were as equally thought out and adorned as the central characters.

It certainly gives the impression of an artist and curator who is aware of his audience and their dedication to the comics and DC brand, rewarding them with these nuanced touches such as the comic book background imagery on show. Each central character and member of the Justice League and wider DC ethos were afforded their own specific zone in the exhibit, a respectful balanced approach, with the opening section dedicated to the exploits of the Flash before transitioning to the Green Lantern Corp of heroes. With the exception of the disastrous Ryan Reynolds movie, they have never featured as prominently in the recent DC releases to the same extent though with their inclusion in the Justice League film it would be fun to see their inclusion and interpretation grow with the expansion of the DC brand.

One of the nice features of the exhibit as mentioned was the inclusion of the Lego built comic book covers, these recreation of the earliest and most famous editions where the heroes were first depicted created in the artists unique 3D styling, most effective I felt with the Action Comics sculpture recreating the iconic image of Superman lifting the car up. This would feature again with the inclusion of the most well known Batman cover, ‘The Killing Joke’. Almost entirely superfluous but a really nice touch as with the background use of the flash blur lines that just gives depth to the display. From there you were introduced to world of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Perhaps the only aspect that ages this review given the huge success of these two respective franchises in recent years with their stand alone movies and seemingly the only aspects of the aborted Justice League series of films that have been well received by critic and fan alike., you would imagine today there inclusion would be more prominent.

Before moving onto DC’s two most famous characters, there was an opportunity to see a small scale interpretation of the various heroes in their iconic poses including a variety of sidekicks and secondary characters that have in recent years gone on to gain prominence and focus whilst their more famous counterparts have faded to some degree. I was always a big childhood fan of the original screen Supergirl, I probably watched that film before the original Superman film so I know where my allegiances are. Equally, Batman’s sidekick the boy wonder was present as were members of the Justice Corp. It was a nice touch and moment dedicated to the characters that aren’t featured or known as the likes of Batman or Superman but through shows such as Supergirl as part of the Arrow verse series or Titans on Netflix, are certainly becoming their own force.

Superman, the last son of Krypton had two different areas devoted to him, first the flight portion of the exhibit and various displays and features of the character in flight. This was an interesting use of 3D and 2.5D style of model making. The most prominent and striking models were the horizontal and vertical flight statues using the iconic colors of this character. The cape effect on the vertical lift Superman was a nice touch, one of the reasons I’ve come to appreciate the work of Sawaya is his ability to create the effect of curvature using straight edged bricks, the muscular definition of Superman using the layered effect is incredible to see in person. Equally, the 2.5D style of modelling, creating flat backgrounds whilst building outwards to create the impression of depth added an element of speed to the art work.

As with the other members of the Justice League, Superman was given his own dedicated area of the exhibit to showcase him in his iconic pose in the fortress of solitude. Unlike the pieces in the flight room, the colours and styling of this model were predominantly completed in blues with the exception of the vigil of his house emboldened in red. If I had a criticism or disappointment, the icicles and background in these pieces were premade fiberglass or some type of plastic resin. It looked effective and worked in each of the individual pieces but just seemed inconsistent with the other pieces at the exhibit which largely utilised Lego in its entirety to bring the world to life. That said, still an amazing work of art to see in person and inspiring both in the subject matter and the effort to construct it.

Before we arrive at Gotham’s favourite son, a brief tangent from the light of the DC comics to the dark with a spotlight on its various rogues and villains that populate the pages of the franchises we had come to visit. One of the oldest notions of the superhero in general is measuring their heroism against the threat or challenge in their way, the concept of Batman and The Joker has always exemplified this ethos and given the Caped Crusader a foe to give him purpose and reason for doing what he does. The villains of the Batman universe are perhaps some of the most well known characters in the DC franchise and as such featured most prominently in contrast to Superman or the other heroes of the Justice League. There was perhaps an argument to include Lex perhaps though in the absence of a traditional villains garb and attire, it would effectively have been a well dressed balding Lego statue.

There was a great many pieces dedicated to the clown prince of crime, from the iconic image of The Killing Joke front cover which was stunning to see recreated in Lego, how he manages to achieve the various tonal aspects is stunning, to models based on the Joker’s head on the various interpretations from comic book to movie and series. There have been so many versions of this character you could honestly have made a Joker wing, would seem fitting with his legendary status. Equally though space was given to the other rogues in the Gotham universe from Harlequin to Catwoman, Penguin, The Riddler and Deathstroke. Before arriving at the Batman exhibit you were then afforded the opportunity to see the various members of the Justice League with their reveal comic book covers recreated in Lego form, it gave opportunity to view members such as Cyborg, The Flash and Green Lantern in greater detail.

Batman features first earlier in the exhibit with his selected pose and background as part of the Justice League section. As with Superman, the background is largely pre-fabricated creating the skyline and building styling of the Burton era of Batman films. Given the use of the grey bricks used in his construction he did come across almost stone like in his appearance although the familiar edges and bumps of the Lego bricks gives away his true nature. Being able to capture the angle of the blades on his wrists and his cowl was an impressive feat, some of the detail is lost on the cape around his neck although equally the toned armoured legs and arms are certainly defined and does give the impression of The Caped Crusader at his vigilante best. With a great use of spot and ambient lighting this was a great introduction to Batman.

The second portion devoted to this character was a variety of themes and imagery associated to the Caped Crusader. Most prominent when entering this area of the exhibit was the recreation of the spotlight used on the top of the GCPD emitting the bat signal. I really enjoyed seeing the various coloured cowls, the use of light and the reflective dark surface really exemplified the design and actually came across like an interpretation of modern art in its own right. The Detective Comics page used a black wall frame with the outline of Batman use to depict the front cover of the comic he first appeared in. It was a really great mix of art work and imagery in addition to the set pieces such as the silhouette of the character against the Gotham skyline that served nicely to pay homage to this individual that has been at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist concerning the characters of the DC universe.

The closing exhibit involved passing through a tunnel into a recreation of the batcave and a lit up model of the Batmobile, from its appearance as depicted in the Burton directed films. Probably the highlight of the exhibit as far as I was concerned, the car is as much a part of the characters mythology as his slain parents and faithful Butler. It’s difficult to capture the scale and size of the vehicle but it was a large model, an exact scaled production would be a fair assessment and with the lighting of the area and stone aesthetic of the walls, it did make you feel for a moment like being inside the Batcave. You can’t help but be impressed with the attention to detail and the layered effect to give the impression of curvature especially in a car model which has by design tyres and aerodynamic curved design which with Lego in its original form would be challenging. Here, you did feel it could start up and drive off at any moment, a testament to the skill of the artist.

The exhibit concluded with the usual option of foods and merchandise for younger audiences as well as a free play area for budding Lego artists to gain practise to recreate the models and art work on display. Through attending the DC exhibit this was my introduction to the work of Nathan Sawaya, you can’t help but be impressed by the attention to detail in the modelling and the interpretation of existing media to create these moving figures. Through using Lego, it has perhaps alienated the individual as an artist from the more classicist aspect of the movement and the use of traditional mediums. That said, having attended a number of exhibits in the last few months at the Tate and National Gallery, in the 21st century art is very much about the finalised design and the conception of ideas as opposed to how you came about that realised product. For me, I would say this was as much a work of art as an oil painting in the national gallery, and what an incredible artist the man is.

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