At its most basic level, art is about a process of transformation. Artists combine materials into objects that turn out to be more than the sum of their parts.
This summer, you can’t find a better example of how that transformation works, and in different ways, than in the Newcomb Art Gallery’s current shows of work by Chakaia Booker and Katherine Taylor.
Of the two, Booker is by far the better known. Not only has she been an internationally recognized artist for decades, but her work remains absolutely singular in its material, process and vision without ever coming close to redundancy or cliche. (New Orleans audiences may also recognize her as the artist behind a piece displayed on Poydras Street across from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.)
While the Newcomb show includes a few of her drawings, Booker’s work is most associated with one particular medium: discarded rubber tires, which give her three dimensional pieces a consistent color, feel and even smell. (They’re also incredibly heavy: think about the weight of a work like 2010’s “Color of Hope,” which dominates the main wall of the installation and gain a new respect for the Newcomb’s art preparators.)
One astonishing thing about Booker’s work is the range of textures and moods she is able to extract from her primary material, which is often supplemented by other bits of hardware like pipe fittings and hand tools. Tires are transformed into surfaces reminiscent of feathers, vines, leaves, and fabric — and the effect can be playful, menacing or monumental.
Booker describes her work as addressing issues of social, racial and environmental significance. Often these issues are expressed through her titles: you can read “Color of Hope” as either a celebration of blackness or an ironic commentary on the ways black is usually viewed artistically and metaphorically. And “The Privilege of Eating” (2012), with its shovels and “Private Property” signs, makes its point almost too literally.
But for many viewers, the conceptual underpinnings of Booker’s work might be secondary to the purely visual engagement they offer.
“Color of Hope,” to mention again the most prominent piece in the show, offers all the richness and depth of a great painting, from the repeated swirling visual motifs to the occasional words printed on the original tires (“GOOD,” “warning,” etc.) that reveal themselves like cryptic clues in a puzzle.
“Wrench (Wench) II” (2001) plays with concepts of masculinity and femininity, transforming the severe lines of a giant hand tool into a flowing, frilly feather boa.
And the freestanding “Conversion” (2006) looks like either a giant monochromatic corsage or a nightmarish figure out of a Kafka story, depending on the angle and distance you’re viewing it from.
Ultimately, the strength of Booker’s work rests in the way she deconstructs the formal and conceptual properties of her materials and motifs — and recontextualizes them in surprising ways.
That’s also a useful way of relating it to the more modest but no less surprising pieces by Katherine Taylor which occupy the adjacent galleries the exhibition.
To best get a handle on Taylor’s work, start in the gallery to the right of the exhibition entrance, where examples from her “Body” series (2003-2006) surround a giant, fluffy nest of feathers filled with more patterned cast porcelain objects.
They owe a formal and conceptual debt to the surrealist tradition: you’ve seen these shapes before in paintings by Picasso and Dali and in sculptures by Henry Moore, among other artists.
But Taylor’s small pieces, meant to invoke bifurcated bodies, have an ambiguous quality and quietly insistent presence all their own.
By themselves, Taylor’s biomorphic blobs are disquieting enough. They become downright creepy in her newer “Land Body” series (2008-2013), in which they’re combined and layered with other, more literal motifs like casts of skeleton parts — and then covered in sickly-looking layers of thick pastel glazes and garish patterns.
That’s meant as a compliment. The way Taylor manipulates porcelain to resemble other materials like fabric and flesh is evidence of a serious talent.
Like Booker, she’s a formidable artistic alchemist. Taken together, their shows at Newcomb comprise quite the best thing to see in New Orleans this summer.
‘Chakaia Booker, Eradication: A Form of Obsession’ and ‘Katherine Taylor, One and Together’
WHEN: Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed Mondays) through October
WHERE: Newcomb Art Gallery, Woldenberg Art Center, Tulane University
INFO: (504) 865-5328; www.newcombartgallery.tulane.edu
The Newcomb Art Gallery will also present the following related programs in conjunction with the exhibitions. All events are free and open to the public.
- Thursday, Aug. 28 from 6 p.m.- 8 p.m.: Opening reception
- Friday, Aug. 29 at 1 p.m.: Artist lecture by Chakaia Booker in the Freeman Auditorium, Woldenberg Art Center. Attendees are welcome to bring a brown-bag lunch.
- Thursday, Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.: Artist lecture by Katherine Taylor in the Freeman Auditorium, Woldenberg Art Center
- Friday, Sept. 26 at noon: Exhibition walk-through with Katherine Taylor