- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2006

Visitors find the impressive exhibition titled “Forefront: Chakaia Booker” almost accidentally at the rear of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ third floor — and it could easily be missed unless the museum puts up better directional signs.

This post-industrial, rubber-and-steel artist’s threatening yet beautiful sculpture begins innocently enough with the furry, caterpillarlike “Wrench (Wench) II” (2001) at the show’s entrance and then explodes into the huge Rose Bente Lee Sculpture Gallery, where five of her larger pieces are on display.

The largest and most recent of these is the vertically reaching “Shhh ?” (2006), an open, pointed-roof structure resembling a temple. Next largest is “Manipulating Fractions” (2004), a waterfall-esque tumbling of rubber circles from the 20-foot-high ceiling.

The horizontally oriented “Acid Rain” (2001) — a recent museum purchase — is the most fully realized sculpture and the most complexly conceived of the six works in the exhibit.

Measuring 10 feet by 20 feet by 3 feet of looped rubber slices, it seems to “dance” on its inner side. Possibly inspired by her earlier years creating “wearable art,” Miss Booker could be fashioning a long, ribbon-adorned scarf with “scarified” designs arising from the African practice of making slight decorative cuts into the skin. Its blackness is that of rich, deeply hued velvet.

Miss Booker’s astonishing and effective work in rubber and steel may surprise the average viewer, although she’s the most accomplished American artist working with rubber today.

But her work has always been a struggle. She was strongly influenced by watching her grandmother, aunt and sister make clothing for family and friends. She followed their example closely but preferred creating her own patterns as a teenager. “Things that I liked didn’t come in the exact sizes I wanted. In order to make them work for me, I would deconstruct garments, nipping, tearing, and adding to reshape them to fit my needs,” she recalls in the exhibition brochure.

“I always needed to do things differently, to have the freedom to play. I started making sculpture using discarded materials from home: broken plates, the racks that hold dishes, and bottle caps.”

For her, “Rubber is primary,” and she seeks to “process and construct it in new ways.” She views tires as “more monumental, more sculptural, more archaeological than other materials.”

Miss Booker began using recycled rubber tires and stainless steel screw heads in a small 14-by-20 studio in Harlem. Fortunately, she’s now able to work on a larger scale after purchasing an old dry cleaning plant in Allentown, Pa. Her latest works, including the 2006 pieces in this exhibit, were created there.

Although the artist rarely talks about her work, exhibit curator Susan Sterling Fisher says it can be interpreted within historical, social and political contexts. For example, when Miss Booker strips, twists, slices, weaves and rivets different-size tires, she comes up with unusual colors and textures — some “furry looking,” others like medieval metal-pronged armor —that can be viewed as different conceptualizations of black Americans’ experience in the U.S.

Miss Fisher also states in the accompanying wall text that Miss Booker’s use of dark colors connects her to other artists known for their use of black, including Louise Nevelson, who painted her wood sculptures in that color; Frank Stella, who used black as the ground for his early geometric works; and Kasimir Malevich, who used it in what he called his “pure abstractions.” In short, all of them used black as a dark chromatic base for simplified designs.

Now 53, Miss Booker is usually described as a “midcareer artist” who’s at the height of her powers. It will be interesting to see what she does next in her larger studio space.

WHAT: “Forefront: Chakaia Booker”

WHERE: National Museum of Women in the Arts. 1250 New York Avenue NW

WHEN: 1 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Sept. 4.

TICKETS: $8 adults, $6 students (18 years and older such as college undergraduates) and visitors over 60. Free for those under age 18.

PHONE: 202/783-5000

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