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Chakaia Booker: Public Opinion

Aug 25, 2023

Chakaia Booker is a busy artist. On any given workday she paints, sculpts, and makes prints—seemingly all at the same time. Examples of all three media are crammed into the David Nolan Gallery for this astonishing show of work produced between 2002 and 2023 that clearly establishes Booker as one of the major artists of our time.

She is unique in that she is strictly hands-on no matter which kind of art she is producing. And that begins with gathering materials. The photo of Booker that greets viewers entering the Nolan gallery shows her in some obscure corner of Queens, perched on the coin box from an old pay phone, her left hand resting on a tire trophy she's plucked from the local detritus. Only her face is exposed. The rest of her is covered in clothing, some of which she makes herself, and jewelry, which she also makes. The tire she caresses with a thickly gloved hand is about to embark on a new life free of utilitarian trammels: it will become art.

Booker is the ultimate bricoleuse, a hunter-gatherer in a forest of discarded junk who possesses alchemical powers: she turns base matter into gold. Let's begin with one of her earlier works, Fluent (2002), a cast bronze sculpture (18 by 27 by 18 inches) First, we must look carefully at the piece to distinguish its dark patina from the black rubber tire works around it. We finally see the glint of bronze and realize this is a simulacrum. In other words, Booker has made a casting of one of her collage sculptures, causing it to pass through yet another stage of metamorphosis. It's a tangled mess, with the kind of tubing we associate with moonshine stills protruding here and there, with pipes and bronze imitations of tire slices. The shaggy surface in some areas recalls de Kooning's 1972 Clamdigger, while the entire work evokes John Chamberlain's crushed automobile collages. But these associations only help us ground Booker's work in the context of American art as it grows out of Abstract Expressionism. The word "gestural" always appears whenever Abstract Expressionism is mentioned, and Booker's piece is certainly gestural, but there is more here than meets the Ab Ex eye: a rhythm that carries that eye up, down, and around, a mad dance that emulates Booker's act of composing her art from trash. Horace could say his poems were more enduring than bronze, but Booker has made a bronze more enduring than the consuming society that provides her raw materials.

The two rubber tire pieces that dominate the southern room in the Nolan Gallery are Feeding Frenzy (2012) and Self Absorbed (2023). The first is the US flag constructed from rubber tires, steel, resin, and fiber, and yes it inevitably recalls Jasper Johns's flag paintings. Johns made more than forty flag paintings, but his first, from 1954–55, shows Booker's links to him: painting in encaustic over newspaper, the painting is a kind of collage that reveals rather than conceals its various layers. This concept of layering Booker renders opaque here by using racing tires to replicate the stripes in the flag with fifty stars screwed in place. The flag may be hung vertically as it is here or horizontally, but there is no ambiguity here (as there is in the case of Johns) about Booker's socio-political intentions: Black America Matters.

Self Absorbed steps back from social commentary to focus, as its title suggests, on itself. It may be comprehensible only to those who endured learning to write script using the Palmer Penmanship Method: "rest your wrist on the desk; let your index finger guide your fountain pen; now make a line of strokes slightly tilted to the right; now make a line of looped O's." At the bottom, of this horizontal wall piece (49 by 97 1/2 by 7 inches) a continuous series of loops in black rubber, above them, a row of vertical rectangles, strips like those on the flag piece, above that a tangle of folded tire strips in three sections: tangled masses framing vaguely circular folds. Above, vertical rectangular strips like those below. The piece recapitulates Booker's signature elements: the rhythmic loops and circles like dancers on a stage, the rectangular panels holding the dance together, and the frenzied tangle symbolic of Booker's unleashed energy brought into focus. This is a synthesis, an esthetic statement in artistic practice.

Moving north in the gallery, we pass in the corridor a series of woodcuts, lithographs, and Four Twenty One (2010), "mixed media, serigraph, digital print, 3 layers of Plexiglas, glass in artist's frame." A multiple so labor intensive that merely listing its ingredients is exhausting. But like her paintings and her other multiples this utterly complex work reflects Booker's obsession with piling surface onto surface, material onto material, to the point that only she can know what lies beneath.

The north room of the gallery and the contiguous gallery office are occupied by Manipulating Fractions (2004). A modular piece—dimensions variable—composed of rubber tire circles and horizontal supports, this work fills the room, stops, and then continues in the office next door. The ultimate in serial art construction, this piece plays with infinity: given enough time and material, Booker could make this into the Great Wall of China. The effect, especially in the Nolan townhouse space, is awe. We are locked in with the sculpture, living within it. The show is Chakaia Booker triumphant.

Alfred Mac Adam is Professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He is a translator, most recently of Juan Villoro's Horizontal Vertigo (2021), about Mexico City.

David Nolan Gallery Alfred Mac Adam