Chakaia Booker slices, bends, and reshapes tires to form beautiful intricate sculptures. Her abstract formations vary from organic blob-like creatures with tendrils to mirror-like frames and spinal structures that reach for the ceiling. I was drawn in by the swirling details I found throughout her works. Some of the tendrils mimic thick hair, potentially dreadlocks, which I interpret as embracing the qualities of African American hair.
Booker’s largest piece commanded attention as it sprawled in every direction across a wall. It’s clear that the artist is a master at sculpting rubber.
On a wall opposite her huge relief sculpture, Booker displays her photogravures titled Foundling Warrior Quest. These black-and-white self-portraits give an insight into her search for materials, inspiration, and resolution. They show her in a larger-than-life hair wrap walking over trash, seeing her own reflection in a puddle of collected water, and rummaging for tire scraps. She wore a similar hair wrap for her reception as she waded through her many flocking fans. The wrap apparently never leaves her head; it is clearly a part of Booker’s persona.
In her interviews and panel discussions, Booker typically speaks with a metaphorical and loosely story-telling sensibility. Her words flow in a stream of consciousness. She continues the conversation through the titles she uses for her art. In the title for her largest piece, Color of Hope, she revisits a theme from a work she completed in 2007 titled Fatality of Hope. It’s as if she had once pronounced her hope dead but revived it by acknowledging its color: black.
Booker’s work has been known for having Afro-centric themes and perspectives. Despite her possible allusion to a love for “natural hair,” this work appeals to a broader audience than just black viewers. Her quest through the junkyard shows a woman wrestling with her thoughts about her wasteful, inefficient world. Her use of tires reflects her desire for society to reuse and recycle.
For the past 15 years, give or take, Booker has developed a style and technique completely her own. The tires she pulled from burning wreckage in the ’80s in New Jersey and New York sparked her continued interest in the use of this material which she carves into the exquisite forms shown at the ACA Gallery. The undulating, sensuous curves ending with spiky, threatening follicles put the duality of her personal energy on display.
The formal qualities of Chakaia Booker’s are so intricate, complex, and compelling that they could speak for themselves. This however is not the point in the ACA Gallery’s exhibition, Sustain, which attempts to pique our interest with hot topics like identity and environmental sustainability.
The hubris of the show was the heavy-handed curatorial decisions that diminished Booker’s voice in favor of emphasizing a list of catchall themes. These are meant to suggest her work as a metaphor for contemporary dilemmas.
The supporting material that accompanies the exhibition includes a postcard with an image of Booker in a dump, wearing a head wrap and holding a tire. On the other side, it says that her work is about identity, struggle, and sustainability, revealing the thinly veiled decision to market Booker as a persona instead of foregrounding her work.
The image of Booker comes from a series of SCAD-commissioned photogravures titled Foundling Warrior Quest that captures her as she “ceremoniously forages the industrial landscape” (their words, not mine). The problem with this rare glimpse into her process is that it’s largely inaccurate.
As the ACA Gallery informed me by email on Monday, various distributors who know about her practice donate many of the tires she uses in her work. At this stage in her career, I doubt she finds herself dumpster-diving for tires very often.
The creation of these images superimposes the gallery’s desire to push the themes of sustainability and some kind of Afro-spiritual persona over the reality of a practice that, given its scale and detail, must be largely studio-based. Why photos of the dump when there could be photos of Booker’s studio? Those are the pictures I’d like to see.
The inclusion of the Warrior Quest series with her sculptures encourages the viewer to project meanings of race and eco-consciousness onto her deliberately abstract and formally driven sculptures. And while Booker was originally drawn to the medium for conceptual reasons, her contemporary work is determined by her familiarity with the material. What results is that Booker’s work is not properly contextualized and the viewer is not responsible for making intimate (as opposed to cultural) connections with her work.
The presentation suggests that we cannot acknowledge that a black artist can do anything but “black art.” The charged ideas of racial identity and sustainability will ultimately fall short when analyzed critically.
Of course, it has to be acknowledged that Booker ultimately agreed to and posed for the photographs in the show. I guess it’s not selling out; it’s buying in.
The exhibition Sustain continues at the ACA Gallery of SCAD through August 29.