Artist Chakaia Booker treads the environment

Discarded rubber works and photogravures examine the artist’s process and place

Sustain, Chakaia Booker’s solo show at the ACA Gallery of SCAD, features the artist’s trademark wall reliefs and freestanding sculptures, all made of recycled tires, alongside six new photogravures. The overall effect is of dramatic black-on-black compositions. It’s only by looking closely at the sculptures that one realizes what they’re made of. Booker’s works are so complex, the cut rubber treads wrapped so intricately and made to seem so supple, they belie the difficulty of using this intractable material.

Three reliefs, “Natural Tendencies,” “Justified,” and “Sheltered Thoughts” resemble big knots or complicated bows and mark the wall like calligraphic strokes in ink. “Intimate Expressions” and “40th and 5th” are freestanding sculptures in which tire treads twist, curl and jut in shapes resembling large ceremonial masks or headdresses. Other sculptural works include “Like,” which evokes a large, ornate picture frame, and the curvy ladder “Vacancy.” The most recent sculpture is the large wall relief, “The Color of Hope,” from 2010, the title of which likely refers to the election of President Obama. It swirls like a big party on the wall: Tires cut into streamers extrude from the work, which seem to explode from its center.

The most compelling pieces here are new works Booker made in Atlanta. Each summer, in honor of the National Black Arts Festival, SCAD invites an artist of color to come to the college and collaborate with students to create a newly commissioned work of art. The outcome of Booker’s residency is a suite of six photogravures, a 19th-century printmaking technique combining elements of photography and engraving. The resulting prints look like archival photographs but with the wide variety of tones only a print from an etched plate can produce. Robert Brown, the chair of the printmaking department at SCAD and a master printer, worked with Booker and the students to create the series, Foundling Warrior Quest (II 21C), 1-6.

The prints show the artist inserted into a compelling implied narrative. Booker presents herself as a kind of warrior; her combat dress combines the artist’s paint-stained cargo pants and work boots with a desert dweller’s belted tunic, an elaborate cloth headdress, and a cross made of bones. She stands or strides regally and purposefully through a landfill, a tire in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, alone and invincible in her quest. Although these images are performative, they’re not self-conscious. Booker avoids eye contact with the camera, attending only to the task at hand as she moves through the rubble.

The portraits poignantly express Booker’s relationship to the environment. She has taken it upon herself to create beauty from the things others have cast off, and is inexhaustible in her mission.