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Chakaia Booker’s Defiant Beauty at GMoA is Compelling in Scale

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Chakaia Booker, Foundling Warrior Quest (#21C), 2010, photogravure, 30 x 22 inches. Flier courtesy SCAD Atlanta.

My personal awareness of Chakaia Booker’s work has been piecemeal, misguided, embarrassingly recent. I first heard her name a couple of years ago, when the artist traveled from her native New York to SCAD Atlanta for Sustain, a 2010 exhibition at the ACA Gallery that displayed her sculpture paired with a suite of photogravures printed in the notoriously tricked-out campus print shops. Concurrent with the opening of the show (which I unfortunately was unable to attend) I received an email notification featuring a JPEG of an arresting work: a striking woman coolly meeting my gaze, her head wrapped in an impressive headdress, hoisting a nasty, old tire in a junkyard. The image has an aura of intense theatricality, coupled with an unsettling wrongness that so frequently accompanies only the boldest of anachronisms—I was, and remain, compelled by it.

Perennial Properties

As elegant and mysterious as Booker’s recent print work may be, it’s no primer for the material tour de force of her incredible three-dimensional practice. For over two decades now, Booker has cut, carved, bent, nailed, creased, and handedly manhandled discarded tires of all sorts into formidable, aggressive sculptural totems. Suggestive of biomorphic forms, alien architecture, lyrical abstraction, and a three-dimensional calligraphic skywriting, Booker’s tire sculptures sing the tones of a virtuoso; an artist whose material command and formal confidence are the gift of a longstanding and sustained engagement with an individual vision. Alternately displayed on the wall, on the floor, in galleries, and outdoors, Booker’s sculptures command their surrounding spaces with a swaggering conviction generally absent from works twice their scale.

Chakaia Booker, Holla, 2008, rubber tires and steel. On loan from Marlborough
Gallery. Photo courtesy Georgia Museum of Art.

The recently renovated Georgia Museum of Art on the University of Georgia’s South Campus is currently hosting Defiant Beauty, an outdoor exhibition consisting of four of Booker’s large tire sculptures, one of which could be characterized as truly monumental in scale (the artist also creates smaller, more intimate works from tires, which form a different relationship to the viewer, but are no less aggressive). The show, located in the Jane and Harry Willson Sculpture Garden, showcases the manifold possibilities of the quiet space. Booker’s installation could not be more different in flavor than Horizons, a recent and meditative grouping of Steinunn Þórarinsdóttir’s figurative iron sculpture. Devoted exclusively to showing the work of female sculptors, the garden is a manicured and multi-terraced affair—a concrete sandwiching of neat strips of earth with a thin stream running throughout the whole, tucked between the north, south, and west-facing exterior walls of the museum. On the occasion of my visit in mid-July it was also incredibly hot, which ironically made for excellent—albeit physically trying—viewing conditions for the work in question. The dizzying stature of the works and the heat-induced haze somehow complimented one another; there were long moments where I felt I was in another less hospitable world.

Chakaia Booker, Phobic Digression, 2006, rubber tires and steel. On loan from Marlborough Gallery. Photo by Brian Hitselberger.
Chakaia Booker, Phobic Digression (detail), 2006, rubber tires and steel. On loan from Marlborough Gallery. Photo by Brian Hitselberger.

Defiant Beauty initially greets visitors with Phobic Digression, a large gateway structure of soft asymmetry. Built on a steel frame, Booker’s slashed-and-bent tire fragments creep up every section of its armature, completely obscuring the underlying structural elements from view. The effect is not unlike a magician’s sleight of hand: she keeps our eyes on the material and the unsettling life it’s been imbued with while diverting our attention from the mechanics holding it together. Above our heads, one wedge-shaped form pierces the other in an act that feels more cooperative than violent. The exterior of the work is lined with stacked scales of rubber sliced into squares and standing on end, while the work’s underbelly hums with barnacle-like twists.

Chakaia Booker, Shhh, 2006, rubber tires and steel. On loan from Marlborough Gallery. Photo by Brian Hitselberger.

The monumental Shhh cuts a stunning silhouette against the open sky—at 20 feet tall, odds are it would cut a stunning silhouette against almost anything. Booker’s rubber slivers rain down the work’s interior walls, while thick folds shingle the opposite sides. The tension between these dichotomies—opposing textures, dual forms in competition, exteriors and interiors—serve as an underlying compositional schemata for much of Booker’s sculpture; however, Holla, my favorite of the four, changes the game considerably.

Chakaia Booker, Shhh (detail), 2006, rubber tires and steel. On loan from Marlborough Gallery. Photo by Brian Hitselberger.

Located on the higher terrace of the garden, Holla evokes more of a figurative presence than the other works on display. If I had to hazard a guess, I would posit the more human scale, or the separation of the form into torso and head proportions—but to be clear, we’re talking about a wildly undulating mass of shredded tires. That it evokes any form of human empathy at all is testament to Booker’s material prowess. With Holla, Booker allows her inventive manipulation of the tires to run full reign, with varying textures moving freely throughout the surface of the work. Small, shingled slices give way to bulbous, looping folds; at the rear, a shiver of scales dances in even a modest breeze. Booker’s work is well-traveled—with recent exhibitions in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, the Milwaukee Art Museum, the New Museum, and the Museum of Art and Design (both in New York), it’s compelling to imagine what sort of presence these works would have in so varied an array of venues. Odds are, they would steal the show, as they have here in Athens.

Chakaia Booker’s Defiant Beauty is on display in the Jane and Harry Willson Sculpture Garden at the Georgia Museum of Art on UGA’s South Campus until April of 2013. Please see the museum’s website for viewing hours.