Booker is known for her adaptive reuse of discarded industrial materials—rubber tires, wood, metal—to create intricately assembled sculptural works. The New York Avenue Sculpture Project is an outdoor public art project dedicated to showcasing the work of contemporary women artists. It was organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), in collaboration with the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District (BID) and the D.C. Office of Planning, as well as other local Washington D. C. agencies. Heading toward the nucleus of Washington D. C., along New York Avenue, you cannot help but pause amidst the bustle of the city to admire four large-scale sculptures by New York-based artist Chakaia Booker that emerge from the median between 12th and 13th Streets, NW.[i] The project showcases Booker’s work in a setting that allows residents and visitors of the city to have immediate contact with prime examples of the artist’s signature style.[ii]
Frequently praised for her talent and knowledge of sculptural techniques and even described, by critic Benjamin Genocchio, as an “outdoor sculpture specialist”[iii] Booker’s work compliments this public art space. The organic shapes of her sculptural work and nontraditional materials employed by the artist look as though they’ve emerged from the earth and expanded in sync with the concrete buildings that line the avenue. In a way, her large expressive rubber forms seem to bridge the contrast between the Renaissance Revival-style architecture of the NMWA and the sleek modern structures that line New York Avenue.
The brilliant craftsmanship of Booker’ work often makes it difficult to look beyond the materials used to construct them; however, there is much to be gained from surveying the sculptural work in-situ. Each piece holds a personal significance for Booker; resounding themes of gender, race, economic, and environmental issues are engrained in the sculptures, in this project and throughout her oeuvre. Exceptionally interesting are the titles given to the works in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project—Take Out, Gridlock, and Pass the Buck from 2008 and Shape Shifter, made specifically for this project in 2012—offer gateways to further exploration.
The New York Avenue Sculpture Project works rely heavily on fabricated steel frames for their geometric shapes, to which Booker has attached thousands of shards of rubber tires. She cuts, bends, weaves, and twists used bicycle, automobile, and truck tires into massive assemblages. Booker’s practices requires great physical strength in gathering and transporting the worn tires from various locations in New York City. Once in the studio Booker uses various machines and tools to reshape the rubber material into workable pieces. Her ability to link stereotypically masculine industrial objects – such as tires and steel — with the traditionally viewed feminine craft of weaving excels in these public works.
The care with which Booker and the NMWA took in positioning of each piece should be noted. For instance, the rectangular shape of Take Out is suggestive of a frame, window, or mirror, which is tactically placed; its planned site entices viewers to look through the opening to see the other three sculptures along the median’s pathway, and emphasizes their interaction with the cityscape—both in the foreground and in the distance. The loose loops and spiked ends of the cut rubber tires burst all around and achieve a sense of swirling motion that activates the space in and around Take Out.
Gridlock aptly references the standing traffic along D. C.’s New York Avenue and symptomatically alludes to blocked passages in the journey of life. The work consists of a pair of twisted horizontal forms, reminiscent of a DNA double helix, and are covered with numerous piercing fragments of rubber tire remnants that protrude out of the work on its convex side, on the concave side the intertwined patterning is revealed. The projecting rubber tendrils suggest a rotating motion that activates the space in a vertical fashion. It is a centered focus that contrasts Take Out’s expanded form in space.
Pass the Buck is on a circular shape and distinguished from the stylistically linear and free flowing works in Booker’s oeuvre. The combination of circular form with the tightly woven rubber pieces linked closely and intricately threaded creates a smooth, flat surface that is a rarity in her sculptural work. Booker drew inspiration for this work from the life story of Madam C. J. Walker, a noted businesswoman and philanthropist of the early twentieth century, known for developing a thriving beauty line for African American women.[iv] Walker was an advocate for civil rights and supported various charities. Booker’s spherical-like sculpture captures Walker’s steadfast conviction that one should give back what they are given, creating a sort of visual representation on the notion of “paying it forward.” The form of Pass the Buck, embodies a visual model of the karmic idea of “what you give out to the world is what you receive back.”
A fourth in this series of outdoor works, Shape Shifter, is a highlight of the project. It fully encapsulates Booker’s sophisticated craftsmanship and expertise at transforming rough, cumbersome used tires into objects that embody a lightness about them in their active edges and large openings and curves. Shape Sifter is made from hundreds of cut tire scraps that are fused to massive stainless steal structures with arches and bends that recall the shape of bird’s wings. The pointed ends of the tires create a fringe that runs along the sleek edge of the curved steels and look like the ends of feathers peeking out from the wings. Depending on the season and time of day, sunlight considerably alters the tones and textures of the work and produce otherworldly shadows that dance across the ground and bring these giant structure to life.
The sheer size and semi-abstract, textural, and monochromatic qualities of Booker’s monumental sculptures are reminiscent of such important public works as those by Louise Nevelson and Henry Moore. However, through her consistent dedication to using recycled rubber as her primary material, Booker’s sculptural objects belong in a class of their own and evoke an interesting perspective on making organic forms with synthetic materials.
Rana Edgar holds an M.A. in art history from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, G.A. and a B.F.A in photography from the College for Creative Studies, Detroit, M.I.
[i] The New York Avenue Sculpture Project is located adjacent to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, which is located at 1250 New York Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.
[ii] The New York Avenue Sculpture Project was initiated in 2010 to enrich the arts and cultural district of DC. Booker is the second artist to take part in the public work; artist Niki de Saint Phalle was the first featured artist. Booker’s works will be on view until March 9, 2014.
[iii] Benjamin Genocchio, “Where the Rubber Meets the Razor,” New York Times, May 15, 2009, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/17/nyregion/westchester/17musect.html?_r=1&
[iv] “New York Avenue Sculpture Project,” National Museum of Women in the Arts, accessed June 2, 2013, http://www.nmwa.org/exhibitions/new-york-ave-sculpture-project