Tires fail in many ways. They can be punctured or cut, inflated too much or not enough. Struck with sufficient force, steel belting cracks and bulges. Overheated tread pulls away from its casing.
As a young sculptor, Chakaia Booker collected scraps of ruined tires from the streets of lower Manhattan. The material was ubiquitous, malleable and symbolically resonant. In Booker’s hand it became something else. It became beautiful.
Now one of Booker’s largest and most ambitious projects to date has been installed on the Danforth Campus of Washington University in St. Louis. Titled “Shaved Portions,” the piece consists of deconstructed tires that have been sliced, shredded, woven and attached to a towering steel armature just east of WashU’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
Leslie Markle, the museum’s curator for public art, notes that Booker’s artistic practice often fuses ecological concerns with questions of identity, citizenship and industrial production.
“Like much of her work, ‘Shaved Portions’ is marked by Chakaia’s distinctive ability to transform salvaged rubber tires — a material often associated with urban blight — into a startling array of biomorphic forms,” Markle said. “It also raises complex questions about global resources and environmental justice. We are honored to bring this important piece to campus.”
Measuring approximately 77 feet long and 35 feet high, “Shaved Portions” is visible from Skinker Boulevard and from the running and biking paths in nearby Forest Park. Yet it rewards up-close engagement. Visitors can walk around, or through, the steel armature, which seems to emerge, crab-like, from a sandy bed of smooth gray stones. Clusters of sliced rubber bristle like thorns or claws or sometimes palm tree fronds, silhouetted against the sky.
Other passages recall shells, exoskeletons or the protective thatching of bird nests. Long strips of gray and black spiral like snakeskin. Tread patterns and other elements of tire construction — the grooves, ribs, sipe and dimples — become part of the design, suggesting the tactile experience, and hand-woven intimacy, of traditional textile.
“Shaved Portions” will remain at WashU for the duration of the 2022-23 academic year. The piece was originally commissioned by Oklahoma Contemporary and installed in 2021 along Oklahoma City’s Automobile Alley, a location historically lined with car dealerships. The St. Louis installation is organized by the Kemper Art Museum as part of its Art on Campus program.
For more information, visit kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu.
About the artist
Born in New Jersey in 1953, Booker earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Rutgers University in 1976 and a master’s in fine arts in sculpture and painting from The City College of New York in 1993. She also has studied a variety of disciplines, including African dance, ceramics, weaving, basketry and tai’chi, all of which inform her artistic practice.
Booker’s work has been featured in dozens of exhibitions, including solo shows at Millennium Park Chicago (2016), the Cleveland Institute of Art (2015) and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington (2012). Major group shows include the Whitney Biennial (2000), “Modern Heroics: 75 Years of African-American Expressionism” (2016) at the Newark Museum and “Epic Abstraction: From Pollock to Herrera” (2019) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In St. Louis, Booker has exhibited at Laumeier Sculpture Park (2002) and the University of Missouri-St. Louis (2007). Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, among many others. Her numerous honors include grants, fellowships and awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Booker lives in New York and works in New York and Allentown, Pa.