Few cities do public art as well as Chicago. Place the point of a giant compass at the intersection of State and Madison, and a circle with a radius of about 1,000 yards will encompass works by Calder, Picasso, Dubuffet, Chagall, Miro, Richard Hunt, Jaume Plensa and Anish Kapoor. Through April 2018, a public installation of sculptures by artist Chakaia Booker fills the Boeing Gallery, a comfortably shaded outdoor promenade that runs the length of Chicago’s Millennium Park. These seven steel and rubber sculptures manage to remain lighthearted and invitingly interactive, though much of Chakaia Booker’s oeuvre is freighted with poignant allusions to race, class, and social mobility.
Rubber is an urban, industrial medium, and much of the rubber Booker uses comes from old tires, which, scarred and worn, betray suggestions of their histories prior to being re-purposed as art. For Booker, this wear and tear is a metaphor for physical and emotional scarring resultant from one’s class, race, or occupation. She also views the tire as a symbol for social mobility; not only does its very shape imply movement, but, particularly in America, cars are an especially visible expression of social and economic status.
Here in Millennium Park, in the absence of any sort of curatorial statement (or even corresponding titles) viewers must approach these sculptures on their own terms. Somehow, Booker takes industrial found material and manages to achieve something akin to what Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth did in highly-polished bronze, wood, or marble; these sinuous, organic forms accent their surrounding environments, the negative spaces within her sculptures unobtrusively and gracefully framing the world that surrounds them.
By design, her work invites interaction: children crawl through their crevices, viewers pose inside them, and nearly everyone that walks by touches them. Take-Out, a sort of monumental picture-frame, seems to have been created with Instagram in mind; it’s exceptionally popular among passers-by, who pose for snapshots and selfies, framed by its floppy tendrils. And curious viewers frequently reach out to settle in their minds whether the feathery membrane of Gridlock is indeed rubber. Booker welcomes such interactions.
Chakaia Booker isn’t too concerned about how viewers interpret her work, although some of her sculptures indeed have very specific sources (Pass the Buck, for example, was inspired by Madam C. J. Walker, a prominent African-American millionaire, philanthropist, and social activist), preferring instead for viewers to come up with their own associations. These could range from the sordid history of the rubber industry to nostalgic childhood memories of tire-swings and playgrounds.
Any art in the Boeing gallery space faces the formidable task of competing with iconic works like Jaume Plensa’s immensely popular Crown Fountain and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (very possibly the most Instagrammed public sculpture in the Midwest), both just a stone’s throw away. But, visually appealing and eminently accessible, Booker’s sculptures certainly hold their own, their rough-hewn, patchwork surfaces contributing an element of handicraft missing from the park’s other sculptures. Furthermore, while Chakaia Booker’s art is comfortably at home in relatively hushed, sacrosanct spaces of New York’s Metropolitan Art Museum, her work also admirable delivers an elegant beauty to the masses in the vernacular, industrial, working-class medium of recycled rubber, situated here in this shady oasis just a few steps away from the bustle and traffic of Chicago’s perennially high-decibel Michigan Avenue.