“May Tveit: Universal Boxes,” Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

The humble cardboard box has been a massive success story. Cardboard boxes are a symbol of global transport and circulation of goods, and therefore labor and capital. Even by art world standards, which can be snobby about materials and media, cardboard continues to be employed by artists because it’s cheap, readily available, and easy to adapt.

May Tveit’s “Universal Boxes” in the wedge-shaped Kansas Focus Gallery at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, features eight immaculate cardboard sculptures densely installed for this solo exhibition.

Tveit, a KU industrial design professor, is unusually familiar with the sculptural potential of cardboard as the unofficial Artist-in-Residence at the Lawrence Paper Company where she closely observes the industrial processes of scoring, slotting, creasing, folding and cutting the corrugated box material.

Tveit’s artistic process downshifts from the mechanical to manual actions of stacking, positioning, and adhering layers upon layers of cut box pieces with mathematical precision. The exhibition surveys her three-dimensional box-cabulary of symmetrical wall sculptures. These strongly architectonic forms, scaled to the human body, make them intuitively accessible, strangely familiar.

It’s the same way we recognize the inherent beauty and mysterious symmetry of pyramids whether made of stone or cake or cardboard. Despite the rawness and the familiar contempt that corrugated cardboard conjures up, Tveit elevates the material through these works. In the presence of several grouped together the sculptures retain a weird tension of being both ancient and futuristic.

In their detail and craftsmanship, it’s easy to imagine works like “Purgatory” or “The Road” as architectural maquettes for imaginary structures on Mars. Other works, like “The Well,” resonant with sacred geometry, read as shields or emblems that emanate spiritual vibes. Similarly, “Say Yes,” with its pyramidal receding terraces, calls to mind the ritual apex of sacred pyramids at Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a wall with nearly identical works installed back to back. “You and Me” and “Me and You” together constitute a double positive sculpture projecting through both sides of the wall.  The title suggests the symmetry of an interconnected relationship – discrete forms sharing a mutually dependent space, separate but inextricably linked.

While Tveit’s ramped up forms are well matched to the wedge shape of the gallery, the size of the “Universal Boxes” could justify a much larger space, a place of worship would be interesting, for example. We get a taste of this with an outlier work installed on its own wall in the Museum lobby. “Look Up” boldly repeats the volumetric form of the triple cross, but burnished with a graphite patina, we are visually reminded that the underlying foundation of the pyramid is the square.

Tveit’s revelation here is to splay the geometry of the box inside out, building up new shapes from within the original mother form. The flattened flaps and joined edges of her un-boxed boxes accumulate layered personal and universal meanings as they hover, sometimes a foot or more, off the wall.  She’s deeply considered what boxes do for us – their physical, as well as emotional and psychological dimensions. “Universal Boxes” shows us that the shape and material of the quotidian can be transformed into something pristine.

May Tveit’s “Universal Boxes” continues at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park  through January 28. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org

Images:  May Tveit • Universal Boxes installation view, October 19, 2017 – January 28, 2018, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas. Photo credit: EG Schempf

About The Author: Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an interdisciplinary arts writer, curator and consultant active in both film and visual arts. For two decades he has shared his passion and expertise with arts organizations large and small, from art museums to film festivals, galleries to collections. He and his wife Sarah recently collaborated on a new art project, a baby boy.

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