Our Curator of Historical International Art, Dr Mark Stocker, is a big LEGO® fan: “I’m a geometrical kind of guy. I love eating Toblerone and if I drove a car it would be a Nissan Cube”.
At Te Papa we’re currently hosting Brickman: Wonders of the World until 18 February. Mark therefore jumped at the opportunity to interview the exhibition’s creator, Australian Ryan ‘Brickman’ McNaught, who is one of just 14 certified LEGO professionals in the world.
MS: Is LEGO art? You have a story about that, Ryan.
RM: Well, I entered a portrait of Daniel Grollo, who has built Australia’s tallest skyscrapers, for the Archibald Prize in 2011. But the gatekeeper, a posh lady at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, said ‘LEGO isn’t art!’ and rejected it outright.
MS: Outrageous! What about Antony Gormley’s Brick Man (not Ryan!) or Chuck Close’s Lucas, which are destined for LEGO? And then there’s the version of a famous Seurat painting in the exhibition, more of which later. Is this an isolated case of an art world response?
RM: Most work I do is focussed on children. The art world isn’t normally approached – but I’d love to try! LEGO HQ in Billund, Denmark, has had several artists in residence. But it doesn’t seem to operate much the other way, even though Ai Weiwei has recently worked in LEGO. Museums, yes, there’s been LEGO at the Guggenheim, Te Papa, the Powerhouse, but not the Louvre or MoMA.
Michelangelo in LEGO
MS: When I look at LEGO versions of great art works, I get a real buzz. One that made a particular impact on me at Te Papa is Michelangelo’s David.
RM: How come?
MS: Even though the way you make it is opposite, I think of the block of marble and the blocks of LEGO. Its monochrome is austere and effective. It’s even got some of the monumentality of the original.
RM: Right! And making it really makes you humble when you think of Michelangelo’s creation. In carving you take away but in LEGO we add. One slip and that’s it for marble, not so for LEGO, we can cover up our mistakes! A related work is the Venus de’ Medici – making the dolphin support was a nightmare…
MS: And Venus’s curves aren’t exactly LEGO friendly are they?!
Is LEGO building an art or a craft?
MS: Ryan, do you see yourself as an artist or a craftsman?
RM: A craftsman. I get huge pleasure from seeing my creation progress from conception to finish: I’d liken it to turning an object in wood or making a picture frame. Some of my colleagues say ‘I’m an artist!’ I’m OK with that. But if someone calls one of my models ‘a work of art’, of course I’m happy to hear that too.
How to engineer in LEGO
MS: What about the role of engineering in LEGO?
RM: Engineering is a hugely important aspect, all the more important when you make models on any scale. These have often got armatures – you only see the LEGO surfaces. Look at the Titanic following her impact with the iceberg, that’s many people’s favourite work in Wonders of the World. It obviously requires cantilevering, a knowledge of forces and gravity, you’ve got to know beforehand whether it will stand up…
MS: Or face a ‘titanic’ collapse and even a health and safety issue! There are certain parallels, aren’t there, with the stump in a marble sculpture supporting the figure?
RM: Absolutely, and then we hang things in galleries over people’s heads. Don’t underestimate the hours of maths that I have to put in, the preliminary drawings I make with sharpies on butcher paper, before two bricks are ever joined.
MS: While it’s easy for an arty person like me to underestimate this side of it, surely LEGO is engineering plus art?
RM: Yes, there’s got to be scope for form, style, artistic flair, and for those quirky touches that make people smile because they can identify with them, like the little Lego oil spill under the motor of the VW Beetle!
MS: I love that, and also there’s the ‘Where’s Wally?’ aspect to the multi-figure scenes in large compositions, like the pagan ritual ceremony enacted at Stonehenge.
Where’s the Kiwi stuff?
MS: Although the scope of the exhibition is truly global, what about the local?
RM: Well, after the opening here at Te Papa, Arapata Hakiwai asked me ‘Well, Ryan, where’s the Kiwi stuff?’ I went on to experience both the Maori creations and Gallipoli, and both have really inspired me. I was learning about Te-Hau-ki-Tūranga with Taharākau Stewart, and marvelling over the sheer skill involved… we talked about doing one!
MS: Ka pai! But any such project will have to go through a careful consent process as you are not just making a fabulous scale model, you would be involved with something that is the very breath and vitality of Turanga or Gisborne. Many people in Aotearoa will watch this LEGO space!
Gallipoli and Guernica
MS: And what about the Gallipoli exhibition?
RM: Well, Gallipoli defined both your nation and mine, and I’m not the first to say the models are amazing and the whole experience is very moving.
MS: Did you see them through LEGO eyes?
RM: Yes, and just imagine what I can do! But right now, I have to be mindful of the rulebook of LEGO, which says no war, no sex, no drugs. As a kid I made LEGO tanks, and my Dad, who was a Vietnam vet, inspired me. But there is no way that I can do anything like that today as a LEGO professional.
MS: That unfortunately answers my question about what I think would make an awesome LEGO tableau, and that’s Picasso’s Guernica. Its near-monochrome impact would be huge. Its origins were in the Spanish Civil War, for sure, but it’s above all a cry of despair at the human condition and a powerful plea for peace, the greatest example of modern art with a social conscience. Please tell LEGO what I’m saying!
LEGO in art: the Brickman’s dreams
MS: Let’s talk a little more about LEGO in art…
RM: I’m excited about the potential of LEGO to give art a whole new dimension, beyond the picture frame. Something I’d love to do is a 3D version of an M.C. Escher composition with his fabulous towers and stairways.
MS: Escher rocks, and he would look terrific in LEGO. On the other hand, I can see how well 2D LEGO works with artists whose styles are simplified and flat. Andy Warhol make a good choice.
RM: Yes, I’ve done a Warhol – a Mickey Mouse!
The Brickman’s favourite painting
MS: What about another of my favourite works at Wonders of the World, the Lego version of Georges Seurat’s Post-Impressionist classic, Sunday afternoon on the Grande Jatte? I got an instant buzz out of it. Seurat’s pixellations meet their Lego equivalents – how cool is that!
RM: It’s my favourite painting. My introduction to it was probably different from yours, it was through the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, back in 1986. There’s a scene in it when the kids go into the Art Institute in Chicago where the camera pans in on the painting so you eventually see the points of paint, amazing. But one of the real challenges was getting the colour combination right, how do I get even close? The answer was to use tiny, odd-shaped pieces. The picture came about because I love it.
MS: You can’t hope for more than that, even if the LEGO is necessarily very different from the painting. You’re dealing of course with two utterly different materials.
RM: Yes, brushstrokes are very hard to do.
MS: Someone like Jackson Pollock would be a LEGO nightmare!
Food on the table vs artistic ideals?
MS: Finally, Ryan, I’d like to ask you a question that all successful artists face. To what extent do you have the freedom to do your own thing, and to what extent are you necessarily dictated to by market forces?
RM: Nobody has actually asked me that before. I try and strike a balance between both. Earlier on, I had to pay the bills and make several LEGO Disney Princesses, which are a bad role model in terms of their body image.
And you’ve got to gratify the big fat rich patron, doing the equivalents of portrait painting. Fortunately, now I can be more selective, and I enjoy the challenge of the ‘wonders of the world’. I hope this ambition and enjoyment comes through in the exhibition.
MS: It sure does. Thank you Ryan, and may the LEGO force be with you!
Do you have any suggestions about works of art in LEGO that Ryan could make in the future? Leave a comment with your ideas.