Chakaia Booker's Craftsmanship Is on Display at ICA Miami

Sugar in My Bowl, on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Sugar in My Bowl, on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. Photo by Zachary Balber
click to enlarge Sugar in My Bowl, on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami. - PHOTO BY ZACHARY BALBER
Sugar in My Bowl, on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami.
Photo by Zachary Balber
The strong scent of rubber overwhelms the third floor of the Institue of Contemporary Art, Miami. The culprits: massive, complex sculptures crafted from tires, which form various shapes and patterns scattered around the room. The pieces are part of “Chakaia Booker: The Observance,” an exhibition that showcases the works of the criminally under-recognized New York City-based artist.

Perhaps best known for pushing the limits of abstraction through her use of industrial material and its relation to ecological concerns, Booker began her work with the medium after collecting discarded tires found on the streets of New York City. She first featured the scrapped material in The Observance (A Fragmented Beaded Banner), created in 1995 and now part of ICA’s survey. The tires and other rubber material hanging from a wire mesh resemble cocoons, suggesting a theme of rebirth while at the same time pointing to humanity's relationship with the environment. The interactive piece allows the viewer to walk through it and be surrounded by rubber pods.

That focus on life is a common theme throughout this exhibit. Regardless of size or shape, each work has a sense of liveliness to it, with many of the structures seeming to take after living creatures. Booker has taken the tires and ripped, stitched, and manipulated them to create monumental pieces imbued with deep meaning. The Newark-born artist's ability to take an unwanted material and transform it into a seemingly living thing is a testament to her craftsmanship.
click to enlarge The Observance (A Fragmented Beaded Banner} - PHOTO BY ZACHARY BALBER
The Observance (A Fragmented Beaded Banner}
Photo by Zachary Balber
“Rubber is an incredibly elusive material to automobile culture, displaced neighborhoods, social class even, so much ecological," says Alex Gartenfeld, the museum's artistic director. "There’s a type of recycling element to the works, as well.”

Make a Wish clearly threads a narrative between ecology and material, forming an American flag out of flattened racecar tires stitched together with welding wire. In Gartenfeld's view, it's “one of the most profound, beautiful pieces [in the exhibit]. The stitching here is incredibly beautiful and really very unique.”

Booker's method of manipulating her materials differs from work to work. At times, tires are made to look like flowers, while in other pieces they may call to mind feathers or fur, as in the crucifix-shaped Cha-Ching. Yet, despite the large-scale nature of Booker’s works, it's remarkably easy to discern the details — and the calculated artistic decisions that went into them.
click to enlarge It's So Hard to Be Green - PHOTO BY ZACHARY BALBER
It's So Hard to Be Green
Photo by Zachary Balber
Touted as a comprehensive survey, “The Observance” goes beyond Booker's works in rubber to showcase the artist's skill in different media. There are paintings on canvas and sculptures made from other materials, including Fluent, a piece cast in bronze that mimics tire scraps.

Also on display are photographs of the artist as she searches for materials in a junkyard and a former gravesite. Gartenfeld says the museum aims to “bring together three decades of her work. We wanted to demonstrate just how important her iconic use of the rubber is, but also what an important artist she is across mediums.”

Though Chakaia’s work is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other well-known institutions, she's still considered underrepresented despite a career that spans three decades. The museum considers this exhibition “an opportunity to reconsider the historical place of her work and advocate for its importance,” Gartenfeld says.

“Chakaia Booker: The Observance.” Through October 31, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; 305-901-5272; Admission is free with RSVP via
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ashley-Anna Aboreden is a Miami native and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She is an English graduate from FIU and is currently receiving her MFA in creative writing at the New School. She has an everlasting love for shih tzus (especially hers), chocolate chip cookies, and vintage books.