Boxes on boxes on boxes

David LefkowitzÂ’s corrugated cardboard architecture

"Palenque Hotel Reconstructed," a watercolor drawing by David Lefkowitz Credit: Submitted image

THE WEDGE — There’s a wry sense of humor at work in the drawings currently hanging at Soo Visual Arts Center, where you’ll find watercolors of boxy architectural forms depicted as stacked boxes, drawn on splayed-open corrugated cardboard boxes.

It belongs to David Lefkowitz, the same artist who, with collaborator Doug Bratland, created the fictional city of Nirthfolde, a topsy-turvy version of Northfield that was the subject of a multi-media exhibition last year. In Northfield, each September brings Defeat of Jesse James Days, when the city marks an infamous 1876 bank raid; Nirthfolde holds reenactments of historic reenactments.

In Northfield — the real one — Lefkowitz is an associate professor of art at Carleton College, and he scrounges up cardboard boxes in the Dumpsters and recycling bins around campus.

“I just scavenge all over the place,” he said. “… That notion of reusing material, finding ways to sort of add value or create value where most people would dismiss that waste product as something to not even think about, is important.”

That it’s possible to read an environmental theme into Lefkowitz’s drawings is one hint the work goes deeper than a playful mixing of image and object, of boxes-on-boxes-on-boxes drawings.

It’s also true, though, that winking self-reference is a common element in Lefkowitz’s artistic output, which includes a forest “drawn” with twigs and branches and architectural projections done in joint compound and sheetrock. Exploration of the built environment, of cities and roads and structures constructed by humans, is another rich vein in his work, which includes fantasy cityscapes and map-like semi-abstract paintings.

These interests come together in Lefkowitz’s watercolors on corrugated cardboard, a material so ubiquitous that it’s ripe with meanings and associations.

“I like making architectural forms out of it … because I like the contradiction of this material that’s kind of flimsy and temporary being used to convey things we think of as more permanent or solid or stable,” he said.

Lefkowitz made the first of these drawings a little over a decade ago, when he had two young sons and was spending a lot of time with them at home. A half-dozen are now in the Walker Art Center collection.

Done on small rectangles of cardboard, they include images of cardboard-box houses with Prairie School cantilevers, churches with box bell towers and whole city blocks. Precarious stacks of boxes become teetering modernist towers.

The nature of the material defines the form of these imaginary structures. Opened box flaps become overhangs. Windows and doors are drawn as if they were sliced into the cardboard with an X-Acto blade.

“In some ways, it’s sort of that modernist notion of starting out with that super basic form, of the cube or the rectangular solid, and exploring how many variations of possibilities there are,” Lefkowitz said. “Starting with such a narrow parameter, it’s sort of amazing to me I’ve been able to generate things that are interesting to me for such a long time.”

Together, several unfolded, flattened boxes create an even larger drawing area for huge watercolors of a winding airport concourse, a fire spotter’s observation tower and the loading dock of a museum. That last one looks quite a lot like the Walker’s backside as seen from Groveland Terrace.

They also reinforce the allusion to what Lefkowitz termed “the architecture of last resort” — the rudimentary shelters made by the homeless. If we ever see corrugated cardboard used as a building material in real life, this is usually the context.

The closest Lefkowitz has come to turning one of his architectural renderings into an actual, three-dimensional box building was in 2009, when he appeared “Father/Son Art Show” at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. He and several the other parent-artists collaborated on a large cardboard box fort that was the show’s centerpiece.

It’s still true that, as children’s playthings, boxes often outshine the toys that come packaged in them. Play, too, is an essential element of Lefkowitz’s box drawings.

“As a drawing, they’re always still a proposal,” he said. “A lot of them would be impossible, which is part of what I like about it.”


Austerity Plans: Corrugated Drawings by David Lefkowitz

WHEN: Through May 18

WHERE: Soo Visual Arts Center, 2638 Lyndale Ave. S.

INFO: 871-2263,