Automobiles: John Chamberlain, Chakaia Booker, Dirk Skreber
Chamberlain: 5 May to July 10, 2009
45 East 78th Street
New York City, 212-861-0020
Booker: 30 April to 30 May. 2009
545 West 25th Street
New York City, 212-463-8634
Skreber: 9 May to 27 June, 2009
535 West 22nd Street
New York City, 212-680-9467
The automobile and the art world have engaged each other in a variety of ways during the past fifty years. Los Angeles artists like Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Larry Bell, Bill Al Bengston, Dwayne Valentine, and Peter Alexander based a new Finish Fetish/Light and Space movement on their fascination with car finishes. On the east coast, John Chamberlain used abandoned car parts to make sculptures as early as 1961. In the auto world in1975, BMW began commissioning artists to paint images on its vehicles. Four of these cars—painted by Warhol, Stella, Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein—were shown in Los Angeles (LACMA) and New York (Grand Central Terminal) this past spring.
Three exhibitions in New York this month show that despite lagging sales of American cars, the car’s role in art works remains undiminished. Today, it is not the car’s finish that is of primary importance. Rather, in two of these shows, it is the car parts that are recycled to make sculptures. John Chamberlain’s impeccably installed show of Early Works at the L & M Gallery includes examples from the first twenty-five years of his career. Chakaia Booker’s somewhat overcrowded third solo show of recycled tires at Marlborough Chelsea includes work from the past five years. Both shows contain a wide range of work—large and small scale—presented on pedestals, as wall reliefs and as free-standing floor pieces. A third show by Dirk Skreber at Friedrich Petzel Gallery uses the whole car, albeit smashed.
In the sculptures of both Chamberlain and Booker, you are not immediately aware of the materials used. The forms are more obvious than the materials and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It isn’t until you approach and walk around them that you realize what they are. In Chamberlain’s case, the steel bumpers and body parts are angled and bent to powerful assemblages that transcend their humble origins. There are largely monochromatic works along with others works that play with color to achieve lyrical passages that could be either found or painted—you’re not sure which. Relative to Chamberlain’s loud, more jazz-like works, Chakaia Booker’s are quiet, more like visual chamber music. The tubes and treads seem beautifully balanced and appear to be woven together like the baskets Booker made early in her career. The result is more mysterious, verging on the sinister, as compared with the more extroverted, playful Chamberlains.
Chamberlain (Miss Remember Ford, 1964) and Booker (Conversion, 2006) can both bring to mind birds or insects. In addition, both have some anthropomorphic works. The scale and majesty of Chamberlain’s nine-foot tall Remnant Gardens (1986) is reminiscent of Rodin’s heroic The Burghers of Calais and the two smashed steel cans in Socket (1974, 1975) capture the alone-together tension in the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”. Formally, these cans also resemble Eva Hesse’sRepetition Nineteen—two versions of which are current installed at MOMA. Booker’s 65-inch high, The Feeding of Men (2007) with its protruding steel pipes suggests a somewhat frightening many-breasted female life-giving form.
The ghosts of two dueling AbEx giants can also be found in these shows. Chamberlain’s use of color and dynamism (e.g., Big E, 1962) is reminiscent of DeKooning’s landscapes and seascapes—a point made convincingly in the side-by side exhibition of these two artists at PACE gallery in 2001. Booker’s large and dense The Fatality of Hope (2007) resembles a Jackson Pollock all-over painting, but with thin lyrical rubber loops extending on all sides. As with Pollack, her line is set free from form.
Dirk Skreber doesn’t recycle car parts in the same way. But, like so many others before him, the car—specifically car crashes—is central to his work. After colliding into poles at a crash test site at the speed of 50 mph, the two cars— each wrapped around a pole—yield riveting sculptures. It’s hard to take your eyes off them as you circle them. The red Untitled Crash 1 (2009) of the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spider 2001 enables you to see the entire underbody of the car and resonates with the large tool paintings of Lee Lozano and the late stacked discards of Philip Guston. The black Untitled Crash 2 (2009) of the Hyundai Tiburon 2001 makes salient the light green cracked glass on the rear window evoking Robert Smithson’s Map of Broken Glass at DIA. However, Skreber’s cars have a more one-dimensional impact than Chamberlain and Booker’s sculptures that gradually unfold, rewarding repeated viewing.
While the car companies may be on the brink of financial ruin, the artists who use their discarded parts are a long way from artistic bankruptcy.