Solo Shows

Chakaia Booker’s lyrical muscle

Chakaia Booker, Minimum Wage, 2022, rubber tires, metal, and wood, 26 x 32 x 22 inches

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Making deeper sense of some abstract art past its initial visual impact can require extended consideration. Not so much Chakaia Booker’s sculpture, now on view in her solo show “Public Opinion” at David Nolan Gallery. Composed predominantly of exactingly configured pieces of black rubber tires along with wood and metal, the work immediately grips you like a confident advocate, calm and insistent. In Minimum Wage, a shovel entwined in flowing ribbons of rubber appears to struggle to do what it is supposed to do. While this work echoes Mel Edwards’ magisterial 1988 welded-steel piece Tengenenge, which incorporates the bent head of a spade, the embattled intactness of Booker’s shovel 35 years later recognizes that the dynamics of injustice and oppression have changed. This galvanizing fusion of directness and nuance is a function of Booker’s intellectual alertness as well as her elegant line, incisively selected components, assured and subtle grasp of structure, consummate skill, and meticulous execution. Technically, though her enlistment of found objects and unifying black overlay are reminiscent of Louise Nevelson, the implied elasticity and heavy tension of rubber affords the pieces in which it is used a distinctly kinetic feel, vaguely threatening energy, and therefore notional agency: it’s as if they might lash out at you if you get too close. These qualities add up to extraordinary lyrical muscle.

Chakaia Booker, installation view of Manipulating Fractions, 2023
Chakaia Booker, Manipulating Fractions, detail

A Black woman born in Newark, Booker is eclectic in terms of content, embracing issues of race and inequality as well as the environment and globalization, iterative in terms of process, reflecting the relentless and often pernicious cultural regimentation she observes; both characteristics are embodied in her large and modular Manipulating Fractions. Recycled tires operate in part as an allusion to Africa, and publicity materials hint at the abundance of discarded tires on that continent. Tires could also have an ominous cast: African combatants have been known to use tires as instruments of subjugation by drenching them with gasoline, placing them around the chests of enemies, and setting them on fire – a practice called “necklacing.” And of course, the tire is an essential actuator of the automobile, an iconic American symbol of an industry that is both liberating and limiting. The rectangular fixity of Self Absorbed imparts the reality of constraint, likely of the socio-economic variety, while rubber strands trailing and conjoined beneath the main shape suggests at once the impulse towards escape and the reality of exclusion. Freighted though the tire is, Booker’s deployments are not heavy-handed or sanctimonious. Her pieces track not as pointed visual essays but as vortices of life deciphered in the landscape – “public” in an expansive sense – broadly in line with the Minimalist idea of drawing in space.

Chakaia Booker, Self Absorbed, 2023, rubber tires and wood, 43 x 97 1/2 x 7 inches
Chakaia Booker, installation view
Chakaia Booker, Fluent, 2002, cast bronze, 18 x 27 x 18 inches
Chakaia Booker, Random Choice, 2009, acrylic and acid-free paper on prepared wood panel, 47 x 47 x 3 1/8 inches

Like Eva Hesse, Booker incorporates humanity into abstraction. To this quality she adds grit and a delicate measure of David Hammons-esque aloofness and swagger. The titles are coyly illuminating. Optical Illusion lends sardonicism to the piece’s prepossessing beauty, which presumptively belies darker truths. Self Absorbed is an expansive double-entendre. Reference Point, with a couple of loops that seduce the eye, and Fixed Scale, which visually conveys nothing of the sort, seem like arch nods to existential arbitrariness, as does the frenetic painting paradoxically dubbed Random Choice. A complementary theme is the need to accommodate complexity; see the cast-bronze Fluent and the clay-and-sawdust Inflected Message as well as several purposefully untitled two-dimensional works. Some titles are cathartically organic to the underlying work. Booker’s American flag, jarringly called Feeding Frenzy, is all black and discreetly lumpy, inevitably citing Jasper Johns as well as Hammons. It achieves an integrated multivalence – bounty, pride, benightedness – so penetrating that the title’s apparent incongruity resolves within seconds into revelation. Yet, despite her visual snap, her honed wit, and her sense of irony, Booker’s work is not overtly polemical, accusatory, or desperate. Nor is it sentimental or cliched. She uncovers and frames hard social reality like an unblinkered historian: with compelling equanimity.

Chakaia Booker: Public Opinion,” David Nolan Gallery, 24 E. 81st Street, 4A, New York, NY. Through June 23, 2023.


  1. GORGEOUS & thanks for the writing!

  2. Great review! I’ve been huge fan of Chakaia Booker’s art for decades. She’s one of the best sculptors ever!

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