Not your daddy’s LEGOs: The surprising ‘Art of the Brick’

You could be forgiven for suspecting that a ticketed traveling exhibition described as “the World’s Most Elaborate Display of LEGO® Art” is just a gimmick — an imitation of art designed to lure children and adults who are too lowbrow to appreciate the real thing.

And at first, “The Art of the Brick” exhibition at the Peoria Riverfront Museum seems to be pretty much that. The first room consists of reproductions of some of the world’s best-known artworks. Some are flat reproductions of paintings including Mona Lisa and Silent Night, others are three-dimensional rendering of sculptures such as Venus de Milo, and others are hybrids; for example, a rendering of The Great Wave off Kanagawa is a bas relief, while renderings of The Scream and other paintings combine 3D figures with 2D backgrounds.

It’s all impressive in its crafstmanship, and certainly far more elaborate than the average LEGO creation — still, you’re looking at detailed recreations of other people’s stuff, not original work.

But “The Art of the Brick” progresses as you move along, and by the time you’ve spent about 15-20 minutes absorbing it, you’ll be convinced that the man behind the exhibition — Nathan Sawaya, who started out as a corporate lawyer and now divides his time between studios in New York and Los Angeles — is a legitimate artist uniquely focused on exploring the possibilities of building blocks as a medium.

The second, larger room is where Sawaya’s original works emerge. Some of them celebrate familiar icons, while others veer into abstraction.

The next section, titled “The Human Condition,” takes an unexpectedly dark turn, with skulls and human figures in various forms of distress, at times faceless, misshapen or disembodied, sometimes grieving or trying to escape captivity.

As a counterpoint to these disturbing images, there are some expressions of hope and love scattered through this section.

Keep on walking and you will find what may be the most intriguing section of the exhibition. Titled “In Pieces,” this is where Sawaya tries to merge his creations with the real world. LEGO props — including an actual dress that was worn by an actual woman — are placed next to photographs of elaborate scenes that feature the props. It’s augmented reality of a different kind.

Instead of exiting the exhibition through the gift shop, you exit through a final section that encourages visitors — especially little ones — to come up with their own LEGO creations.

And in the end, “The Art of the Brick” is more than the sum of its parts. At times surprising, whimsical and even disturbing, it evokes feelings you’d never thought could have been evoked by building blocks. There’s a lot more to the exhibition that you didn’t see in these photos; arguably, the three highlights are “Yellow,” Sawaya’s most famous sculpture, which depicts a human form is ripping their own chest apart as LEGO bricks spill out; a lifesize T-rex that took over 40,000 blocks to construct; and a sculpture of a person midstroke while swimming, which comes to life thanks to a shimmering blue lighting scheme.

“The Art of the Brick” is on through Sept. 1, so make sure to check it out this summer, and don’t be embarrassed if you don’t have kids; it’s not that kind of LEGO exhibition.