By ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star
With gas prices and global warming on the front burner of social awareness and an art world awash in scavenged materials, Chakaia Booker’s work has never been more topical.
Since the early 1990s, the New York-based artist has been shredding, twisting, weaving and knotting salvaged rubber tires into explosive sculptures.
She has shown them extensively on the East Coast and also has exhibited in Europe and the Midwest.
This summer the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art weighs in with the largest assembly of Booker’s work since her 2004 retrospective at the Jersey City Museum in her native New Jersey.
Organized by Kemper curator Christopher Cook, “RubberMade: Sculpture by Chakaia Booker” features two dozen sculptures from the past eight years. The earliest is the 200-square-foot wall piece “It’s So Hard to Be Green,” which catapulted Booker to national attention when it appeared in the 2000 Whitney Biennial.
The work’s mural-scale format and writhing motion recall abstract expressionist painting. The surface explodes with sinuous ribbons of rubber, set off by textured passages of looped, stacked and clustered fragments of tire. The Kemper version includes an improvisatory note in the lower part of the composition, which incorporates an addition made of tires from Kansas City.
One of the signal developments of the past decade and a half has been the move by women artists to “feminize” American abstraction by substituting soft or pliable materials for paint and infusing their compositions with their personal and political concerns.
Personal experiences are important touchstones of Booker’s work. She relates the looping layered surface of “It’s So Hard to Be Green” to memories of her grandmother’s living room, which had white walls painted with gold squiggles.
In an interview at the museum, Booker said she began looking at automobile tires as a potential art material in the 1980s.
“There were a lot of car fires in New York at the time,” she said. “I would wait until things cooled down and pull the rubber off the burnt tires.”
These days she gets her tires from multiple sources, including auto body shops, salvage yards and dumps. She slices them apart and then puts them together into abstract compositions suggestive of figures, totems, masks, body parts and architectural structures.
Booker compares her process of assembly to the cooking and sewing that were a large part of her childhood.
Whether the result is a meal or an article of clothing, “it all starts out with having individual pieces brought together in a whole,” she said.
“Art isn’t separate from life. It’s about who you are. All of what you did is still in you.”
Working with tires came from her concern about the environment. In his essay in the accompanying catalog, Cook addresses the work’s alignment with an “ecofeminist” perspective, which sees the same oppressive social and economic forces at work in the domination of women, minorities and the environment.
Booker’s frequent use of slits and phallic shapes endows many of her works with sexual overtones. Installed on the museum’s lawn, the just completed “Added Substance” (2008) centers on a long slit in a curving, patterned rectangle of cut-up tires.
Other works carry strong figurative connotations, including the tumescent “Simon Says,” paired outdoors with “Added Substance.” The shape suggests a pregnant woman, while its spiky textured surface evokes a feathered costume or exotic bird.
Before her show opened, each sculpture was treated with WD-40 to make it shine. Like a libation poured over industrial talismans, the coating is standard procedure for Booker’s exhibitions.
Echoes of African art — masks, totems, costumes and fetishes — resound throughout her exhibit.
Cook relates the surface patterning of the majestic hood-like “Shhh …” (2006) to traditional textiles as well as to ritual tattoo or scarification patterns.
Its stress on texture and aura of quiet self-containment contrast with the baroque exuberance of two small wall-mounted works behind it, suggesting gnarly little clouds in a bleached sky.
Such disparities in size and spirit — combined with the number of works — made for a challenging and not entirely successful installation in the main gallery. Editing the show to 18 or 20 pieces might have eliminated moments of jumble and redundancy and let the largest works exert their full power.
One of the largest is “Manipulating Fractions” (2004), a towering cathedral-like space that viewers may enter, created from multiple spiny-edged loops, stacked and linked together in a configuration specially designed for the Kemper space.
Like many of Booker’s sculptures, this edifice of maw-like components emits a double-edged vibe of aggression and protection.
It’s a potent mix.
•The show: “RubberMade: Sculpture by Chakaia Booker”
•Where: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd.
•When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Mondays. The exhibit continues through Aug. 17.
•How much: Free
•For more information: Call 816-753-5784 or visit www.kemperart.org to download a podcast conversation between the artist and curator Christopher Cook.