Spring Guide: Chakaia Booker Is A Radial Radical

A sculptor who never tires of tires

For sculptor Chakaia Booker, her first career-guiding artistic inspiration was a kind of baptism by fire. Thirty years ago, during the city's rough old days, she was living in an East Village apartment (the same one she inhabits today), and the streets were burning. Trash, buildings, and especially cars—each night, it seemed, flames engulfed another one. Booker, in her late twenties and itching to express herself, was intrigued—not by the destruction, but by the transformation of the cars' tires. "Once they would burn, you would get different effects," she says, recalling the attraction of the melted tread. "I would go by these cars after they cooled and just begin to scrape off what I could."

So began a penchant for scavenged rubber, and so began a life assembling the strips and shreds of discarded Goodyears and Firestones into intricate, elaborate, widely acclaimed sculpture: towering plant-like forms, delicate works of interlocked Möbius strips small enough to hold, and giant tangles of looping tendrils, like the 20-foot-high relief It's So Hard to Be Green, exhibited at the 2000 Whitney Biennial.

Though its black and sometimes menacing surfaces are reminiscent of the busy, hard-edged work by Louise Nevelson—another assembler of discarded material, and an admitted influence—Booker's sculpture (on view at the Marlborough Gallery, April 30 to May 30) has a fully organic presence. The rubber's softness, its reptilian textures, and all the non-euclidean shaping suggest some complicated life form—born of urban turmoil, and now projecting it. Booker talks about incorporating a grand vision into her work, what she calls "the constant composition of the street and the alley and the people between and the sky and the earth—it's all one." That vision plays out, for example, in The Feeding of Men, a ragged cluster of tire strips intended to represent, Booker says, the effects of overstimulation, of "energy tucked away behind the scenes."

Not exactly what Goodyear was thinking: Phobic Digression, 2006
Chakaia Booker, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York
Not exactly what Goodyear was thinking: Phobic Digression, 2006

All that life in her sculpture emerges from a process of brute-strength destruction. Before she can start manipulating the rubber—slicing, bending, twisting—she has to extract it. In her studio (a sprawling old laundry facility in Allentown, Pennsylvania), she muscles up industrial tools to rip the tires apart. "It takes a lot of body work," laughs Booker, who explains how she must first cut through their structural bands of steel. "The tires can weigh 15 to 20 pounds, and you're going through thousands of them." They come from streets and landfills, from cars, vans, and trucks. Recently, for a NASA-commissioned memorial project, she disassembled a tire once used by the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia.

Sculpture isn't just Booker's métier—it's a kind of mission. "When I get up each day, I begin with myself, as far as sculpting myself," she says, and means it. About six feet tall, Booker stands in her East 9th Street apartment displaying one example of her self-styled daily wear: a giant headpiece of multicolored yarn, layered into an oblong mound that covers all but the oval of her face. On other occasions, she slips on her rubber designs—necklaces or vests constructed from inner tubes that resemble accoutrements from steam-punk sci-fi. Her unconventional dress, which she hopes to turn into a fashion line, goes back to her New Jersey childhood, when she was sewing, like other family members, but ignoring the rules: "When I had my idea, I didn't care about the color, I didn't care about the material. Chop, cut, slit, and I got it on and I'm down the street."

That extemporaneous approach is now what impresses the art world, bringing in honors and commissions from all over. Despite the attention, Booker holds a fondness for the early days that propelled her into sculpture. "Sure, there were all those problems," she says, "but the stimulation of this area was just terrific. Right now, it seems very quiet and very"—she drops to a whisper—"dead!" That is, until Chakaia Booker steps out—an imposing embodiment of art, in search of another useful tire.

Spring Art Picks

Jessica Rankin
March 26–May 1

Across looping paths, thin, jittery lines pass through clusters of dots, blocks of color, and jumbled text, making enigmatic connections in Jessica Rankin's lovely "brainscapes." They're not paintings, but sheets of wrinkly, translucent organdy that Rankin has embroidered with images and words, mapping her stream of consciousness. The artist, daughter of celebrated painter David Rankin, shows off her latest thoughts and needlework. The Project, 37 West 57th Street, elproyecto.com

'Adel Abdessemed: RIO'
April 3–May 9

Alergia native and raw conceptualist Adel Abdessemed, taking his cues from "passion and rage," has played with a lion in a Paris street, dangled upside down from a helicopter to make a drawing, and had himself repeatedly tossed against a ceiling until he scrawled "Thus Spake Allah" on the plaster. Now, he's entwined fuselages of airplanes; put the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah, each copied out by prostitutes, into shopping bags; and shot a video about amputees, in addition to other acts of provocation. David Zwirner, 525 West 19th Street, davidzwirner.com

'Unica Zürn: Dark Spring'
April 17–July 23

The Drawing Center scores again with this exhibit of unnerving dream visions inked in the 1950s and '60s by Unica Zürn, when the German poet and artist was battling depression. Companion of surrealist Hans Bellmer, who'd become infamous years earlier for his freakish doll-mutants, Zürn, too, was creating strange new forms of life. Her exquisite creatures—drawn with delicate, almost ephemeral lines—meld elements of birds, fish, and amoebas. They swim across the paper like hallucinations from Zürn's fragile psyche; tragically, in 1970, she leaped from Bellmer's apartment window to her death. The Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, drawingcenter.org

Manon
April 29–June 20

A cross between Cindy Sherman and Hannah Wilke (with a touch of Marlene Dietrich), Swiss performance artist Manon has been giving European audiences her coolly sexual impersonations and distinct body art for 30 years. This survey of her work—the first in the U.S.—features, among photographic projects, two installations from the 1970s: The Lox-Colored Boudoir, a replica of Manon's bedroom, sumptuously outfitted for lovin'; and the set from a performance that had the artist living inside a cage as a chained dominatrix. Swiss Institute, 495 Broadway, swissinstitute.net

'John Wood: On the Edge of Clear Meaning'
May 12–July 18

If photography feels a little stale these days, maybe it's because John Wood singlehandedly exhausted all the possibilities, on display in this lively exhibit of 200 works: multi-frame cubist-like portraits, eloquent montage and mixed-media collages, finely composed landscapes, sequenced triptychs, and photogram abstractions—not to mention experiments in printing and drawing. In his long career, Wood, now 86, has vigorously kept his art fresh. Grey Art Gallery, 100 Washington Square East, nyu.edu/greyart

'Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective'
May 20–August 16

Francis Bacon's screaming pontiffs have become preeminent icons for existential terror, second only to Munch's figure on the bridge, but what may surprise visitors to this traveling (and very thorough) retrospective is that the temperamental painter did some of his finest work in quiet portraits. Sure, the raw meat and writhing figures of crucifixion are all here, but the triptychs of petty thief and lover George Dyer and the lesser-known Man in Blue series demonstrate an extraordinary sensitivity for color and mood. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, metmuseum.org

Ion Birch
May 21–June 27

The smirking youths of Mad magazine cartoons seem to have wandered into the orgies of Japanese shunga in Ion Birch's wacky, deftly penciled erotica. Boys sporting erections the size of baseball bats (and who often resemble Birch himself) team up with girls with gaping vaginas and pneumatic breasts to screw, suck, and frolic in fantasy worlds that often borrow elements from 19th-century engraving—startling wet dreams that make even the gallerist blush. Freight + Volume, 542 West 24th Street, freightandvolume.com

Gosha Ostretsov
May 21–June 20

Experience a battle between masked aliens who have established the New Government and a band of avenging, often buxom, superheroes. Politically minded Muscovite artist Gosha Ostretsov presents another chapter in his ongoing comic-book saga, a loose satire of post-Soviet authority, notably Putin. Here, among other work, he's paneled a room with lifesize versions of his muscular marauders. Claire Oliver, 513 West 26th Street, claireoliver.com

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