December 4, 2023

ALLENTOWN, PA. – Chakaia Booker’s studio is 20,000 square feet unheated, with a leaky roof and a squirrel problem. Its floor is grooved in places with traces from its former life as a car maintenance shed.

Now there is a woodworking area, metal shop and ceramic room. There are power tools, precision cutters, and a forklift, as Booker’s materials are heavy and her sculptures are large. And there are tires piled high on the shelf. cut into rounds, minced, heaped Pell-Mell.

Booker has worked primarily with auto rubber for over 30 years. In the 1980s, she picked up blown tires in Manhattan’s pre-centered East Village, where she still lives. Her sources now include Michelin, who sends her used tires from racing cars and motorcycles.

Her unmistakable and idiosyncratic work goes beyond the utilitarian calling of the material and contradicts its uniformity. The sculptures can be robust and monumental or finely detailed and incredibly delicate. Some are almost figurative, the gum being cut, bent, and positioned in layers or strands to evoke the human body or more cryptic shapes.

“It’s infinite in its possibilities,” said Booker. “It just depends on your imagination.”

The artist’s commitment to rubber leads to a comparison with other signatures – John Chamberlain’s crushed auto parts, Melvin Edwards’ metal lyrics – but is deeply individual.

“It’s unique,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, one of the curators of the 2000 Whitney Biennale, which featured a sculpture by Booker. Cassel Oliver then featured it in Double Consciousness, a 2005 survey of black conceptual art at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. “She has made it her business to research the material to the point of exhaustion – and there is clearly no end.”

Booker’s first poll show in a decade, and what they estimate is the largest, opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami and runs through October. It is partly an in-depth presentation of their work in rubber that invites reflection on their scope and technique in the medium. Mixing groundbreaking works from her career with lesser-known ones, she includes her wall-sized Whitney Biennale sculpture “It’s So Hard To Be Green” and a recreated version of “The Observance,” an elaborate walk-in installation by Suspended Gummi, which took place in 1995 at York College in Queens and gives the show its title.

But the exhibition also broadens the perspective, including Booker’s painting, photography, and printmaking, and her first love, ceramics. In this way, Booker’s perception as an artist with a single medium is turned upside down (albeit spectacularly) and instead a complete practice is presented, anchored in the craft black abstraction and an ethos of urban roots, principles that continue to this day persist in their work.

“There is so much love in their work,” said Alex Gartenfeld, artistic director of the Institute for Contemporary Art, which organized the Miami exhibition with curator Stephanie Seidel. “It’s the story of a lifetime.”

Booker’s art starts in the morning when she gets dressed. “I model myself every day,” she said.

Your appearance is unforgettable and an integral part of the job. She wore a turban-like headgear made of dozens of strips of fabric and squares in many patterns, wrapped, knotted, and sewn. It encircled her face and ran over her shoulders. Her shirt was upgraded in a similar way – the exact architecture was difficult to determine -. Only the bottom of Dickie’s work pants appeared above sneakers.

This body-based integration of art and life precedes her formal practice. “It was always there,” she said. “It grew and developed with work.” She compared the putting together of her outfits to the composition. “Those are the things on my palette that help me do what I do.”

The regalia can present practical difficulties for Booker’s work that involve a lot of heavy lifting. Its effect is protective as it is a bit shy and reluctant to talk about itself. The more important, intended result, however, is to get the focus on their craft.

“It’s like, let the work go,” she said. “You want to pay attention to that. It is all one. “

Two early photo series document a young booker crossing urban wastelands collecting objects. “The Graveyard Series” is reprinted as the wallpaper on the Miami Show. “Foundling Warrior Quest” appears in the form of photo engravings that she later made from these images in 2010.

Seidel, the curator, said the element of performance, which extends from Booker’s collection of materials to the studio, conveys an ethical, even spiritual, orientation. “It’s not just her doing something with the tires,” she said. “It’s a much broader meditation on interacting with your surroundings.”

Booker moved to New York City in the late 1970s – a short stretch, but at the time worlds apart from her native New Jersey. Born in Newark in 1953, she grew up there and in East Orange, which she shook off as a “regular dysfunctional family” in our interview. Growing up in a time of social turmoil – including the Newark riot and repression of 1967 – and black liberation politics, she studied sociology at Rutgers University, then taught at an alternative black school in New Brunswick, and went to the City to study African dance.

When she settled near Tompkins Square Park, the area flourished in bohemian bloom. “It was a combination of all of them,” she said. “Even people who weren’t exactly artists were all extremely creative, whether in their physical appearance or in what they did.”

Her own transition was gradual, exploring various media and only exhibiting her art twice in a local gallery in the 1980s, including an exhibition of textile works with Faith Ringgold and Howardena Pindell. But her long-term project germinated in the street, collecting the tires and treads that had built up in the scruffy neighborhood, and in the experiments she made with it at home.

“The material was just there,” she said. “Like everyone else, I’ve tried different things. When the tires came in it was like I made it! And I haven’t looked back. “

Booker earned an MFA from City College in the early 1990s – a pragmatic decision since she thought she needed a degree in order to teach and survive as an artist. There she connected with an important mentor, the black abstractionist Al Loving, who had moved away from painting to do works in which torn paper and canvas had accumulated. She also found space to expand.

Anthony Archibald J., who was to become her first private dealer and a close friend, remembered their first meeting on campus and asked to visit her studio. She instructed him to visit her a year later. He kept the deadline and found that she had taken over part of a building that the college had evacuated (and would later demolish) and filled it with sculptures made from tires and wall planks.

“It wasn’t about her talking about art history or theory,” said Archibald. “She had the ability, but she refused to prove herself to anyone. It was always about work. “

Until 2000, Booker was artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem and participated in the Whitney Biennale – a path that may have ushered in notoriety. She joined the Marlborough List, a commercial gallery, for a decade. But both her unorthodox medium and creative priorities kept her from the spotlight when it waved.

She wasn’t one to change her art for approval. “People have their preferences, that’s the bottom line,” she said. Interest in her work has grown over the years as a younger generation of curators gain influence, she said.

When Booker set up her studio in Allentown around 2005, she doubled down and removed herself from the New York scene while securing jobs on a scale she couldn’t afford in the city. Her first studio in Allentown was even bigger than the current one.

Your work with tires has given rise to many lines of interpretation – in connection with industrial decline, the ecology of salvage and the material legacy of black labor. In Allentown, itself an industrial holdover, these issues need little explanation. “Just look at this place,” she said, pointing to herself.

Today Booker works in many collections of museums and sculpture parks. Her commissions for art in public spaces are now more widely accessible. An installation from 2019 in the Military Park in Downtown Newark attracted young people who climbed and sat in work and used it as a backdrop for group poetry performances, said Salamishah Tillet, a scholar at Rutgers-Newark (and a contributing critic for the New York Times) who owned a co was the curator of the project.

Though reuse is a long-standing art problem, the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fore the notion that no human is available, Tillet said, adding a new relevance to Booker’s work. “If that is the key to liberation, there is something exciting when an artist manifests it in his practice.”

In the studio, Booker had the impression of someone who had chosen freedom long ago.

She works with her long-time partner and processor, Alston van Putten Jr., and rarely with anyone else. The operation is self-contained: the studio is also the warehouse in which many works are packaged live when they are not borrowed for exhibitions. In Manhattan, she lives in the same apartment as in the 1980s. She drives in Van Putten’s truck or takes the bus.

Presented with arguments that scientists have put forward about their art – their ecological mission, their connections to the exploitative cultivation of rubber, the affinity of their figurative work, and their personal portrayal with African masking – do not confirm or deny them and invite the viewer to theirs to form your own interpretations.

Craft is their axis of progress. “It’s the technique to make it work,” she said. “It’s the tools that get my hands into position. It’s like wanting something and letting it go. You have to go above and beyond to keep it going. “

The investment in the spirit of the 1970s is on the way.

“They even have tires on the moon,” she said. “Didn’t they leave any equipment up there? You just have to send me up! “