MIAMI — The online images for Chakaia Booker: The Observance immediately attracted me, so I made a point of seeing the show. At soon as I stepped from the elevator I was staggered. “Sugar In My Bowl” (2003) looks like a portal to some fey expanse. I could have likely distracted the closest guard and stepped through it, just to see whether I came out the other side whole, but I didn’t dare. The piece looks like two widely concave ribs are covered with a sheaf of cut rubber fronds that flow in one direction like the pelt of some forgotten beast from the Cambrian era and together they form the outer, vertical halves of “Sugar.” The ribs leave an oval opening between them, as one flap of the pelt flops over the top, a makeshift lintel to the piece’s doorway. And on the inside, in each rib’s hollows is a cascade of orifices through which this creature breathes. No, I did not step through its aperture, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so. If this is Booker’s version of sugar, then what could possibly be her idea of salt?
Almost all the objects in this exhibition feel this way: taxidermied specimens from some bestiary lost to time, or powerful talismans made from the glumly manufactured material of black rubber made alive by incantations whispered over the shell of a twisted hubcap by a woman kneeling next to an abandoned highway. Every piece here feels like it was found, gathered, carved, and configured with intention. Some pieces like “Reclining Torso Breast Feeding Herself,” (2000) despite the title, read like nothing I have ever encountered in this reality, roiling masses of black rubber with a hide of rubber quills and sharpened steel blades for tongues. Other works slyly hint at the female body: “Never Mind” (2006) has a series of regular swirls around a vertical semi-oval hollow that tapers to a point on each end, with a mane of rubber hair surrounding it — a vulva-like shape. But this one has a thin blade lining the delicate interior. Behind and underneath it is a mass of undulant tire treads tumble and writhe like something that was caught in the motion of evolving or devolving before my eyes.
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All of Booker’s work here lends itself to this kind of imaginative fabulation partly because this is my first time encountering it, and partly because its abstraction is so deliberate. It is willful without collapsing into being wanton. Even in the work that is most maximalist and spendthrift, I can see certain choices being carefully made. For example, the piece “It’s So Hard To Be Green” (2000), comprised of rubber and wood, has a riot of textures and tendrils, knots and curls, and within that maelstrom there is, starting from the upper-left corner, a meniscoid passage of smoother texture that runs diagonally through the center of the whole, as if a small moon had hurtled through its landscape on its way elsewhere. Even the feathered cross lain almost fully prone across the handles of two black wheelbarrows (“Chu Ching,” 2012) seems to come from that other dimension that Booker can dip into seemingly at will.
The intentionality of this abstraction gives me the impetus to discuss something about the current zeitgeist that’s been on my mind for a while. There is a kind of determined insouciance in the work of painters and installation artists who move easily between the two genres — particularly those who also incorporate textiles and other materials that are applied to a substrate hung on a wall or dangled from clotheslines — that reads, as my Jamaican parents used to say to me, as “slap dash.” I’m thinking of the work of artists such as Eric Mack, John Outterbridge, Richard Tuttle, Rodney McMillian, Deborah Anzinger, TJ Dedeaux-Norris, and many others. There’s a studied casualness to their work that frequently seems willy-nilly, unbothered by any felt urgency and conveying no sense of real risk. Mack’s work, in particular, most often looks like it to me was hurriedly concocted some time between the outbreak of a fire in his studio and the imminent arrival of a very important gallerist. Seeing his work at the last Whitney Biennial, I was just completely mystified by how much attention this work has garnered and by how popular this kind of aesthetic has become in the last decade. Look at “Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag – Permanently” (2019), which is in the Whitney’s collection, a galumphing and inert piece of artistic chicanery. It’s a miscellany of tattered textiles and bits of fabric indifferently sewn together. Instead of manifesting the rich and lovely craft tradition dating to the 19th century referred to in its title, the piece just languishes from some rope lines, as dispiriting as a meal of cold gruel.
To be clear, I’m not making an argument for a particular generational sensibility. Artists such as Outterbridge and Tuttle are essentially of the same generation as Booker and their work, if it starts in delight, skids into delirium. I am not suggesting that only younger artists favor this kind of slacker aesthetic. Nor am I saying that the work made in this aesthetic is generated from a intellectual laziness or a lack of care (though it feels like it is in certain instances). Many of the artists I have listed in the above have made work that has, at one time or another, impressed me as compelling and insightful. (Rodney McMillian’s pieces that feature brutalized, abandoned furniture are deeply emotionally evocative.) But there is something in this genre of work that feels diametrically opposed to earnestness, to appearing to be trying hard, perhaps even to the idea of making something beautiful. And the notion that something made may be more commercially viable and conventionally pleasing to the eye can only be so by being proportionally less complex or intellectually rigorous has always struck me as bankrupt, and certainly deserves an entire essay to cover properly. Perhaps this is the essential utility of this way of working: that an artist can knock all these pins down with one sweeping, intuitive gesture. When artists work in this way, they unburden themselves of obligations or fealty to ambitions they may not actually have. This is fine. But I suspect what undergirds work like Booker’s is a sense that she needs and wants to use the language of abstraction to say something intelligible, transformative, magical.
I want to blame Jason Rhoades in particular. The idea that the guts of the artist’s studio, the tools and implements of one’s trade would serve to make as much meaning or attract as much interest as the intentionally made object was made sexy by his installations of the 1990s and early aughts. His work weaponized nonchalance, moved it toward frivolous indifference. He glamorized the legacy left him by artists who preached the gospel of “anything the artist does constitutes art.” This nostrum, of course, completely bypasses the question of whether the art made with this conviction and shared with an audience actually rewards our time and attention. There is a place for play and for not taking oneself too seriously. But the notion of humor and delight is not what people who champion this kind of slacker aesthetic claim to be the blessing of this work. They mistake being carefree for being meaningful, or don’t regard meaning as crucial to the viewer’s experience.
In contrast, Chakaia Booker shows me how abstraction can be compelling. “Sugar In My Bowl” makes me an active participant in decoding and deciphering the work because it brings so much energy in the very nature of its being that I feel I need to bring at least as much energy with my looking. Booker’s work, in essence, is urgent. It has a fire in its belly. It provides predicates for nouns we have yet to articulate; it provides objects for our supple intuitions to grasp and use to take flight; it makes our intuitions bud and blossom. That is, after all, what I come to art for.