From a distance - and it's easy to see them from afar in Drexel's spacious Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, if you choose - Chakaia Booker's large sculptures constructed from discarded car tires look as mysterious and elegant as any of Louise Nevelson's assemblages of found-wood objects painted entirely black. They're generally more physically expressive than any of Nevelson's sculptures, but Booker's 14-panel wall sculpture Echoes in Black, from 1996, recalls the older sculptor's monumental wall sculptures so immediately that its title would seem to be a tribute to her.
But where Nevelson hinted at closed doors and secret spaces, Booker, born in Newark in 1954, conjures the mean streets. And her work makes its strongest impact up close, in your face.
The scents of rubber and road emanate from her sculptures; several works - most obviously a vertical standing piece, Cross Over Effects, just under seven feet tall - have the presence of large, possibly threatening, human figures. It would be hard not to interpret the hundreds of cuts and twists in each work as evidence of the physical struggle between Booker and her chosen material - and that it's an exertion she wants you to feel, too. Some of the smallest works in her show are the most tortured ones, in terms of surface, perhaps because such intense manipulation and marking would be lost on larger works.
It's not clear why the show's curator, J. Susan Isaacs - a professor of art history at Towson University, where this show, "Chakaia Booker: Are We There Yet?" originated - chose to present so many of Booker's early works, but her selections, most dating between 1996 and 2010, and all of them black and abstract, hold together well visually as a group. (A quick look at the website of Marlborough Gallery, where Booker has had one-person shows, revealed several pieces from 2012, among them a floor installation of red plastic colanders and an immense pair of high-heeled shoes rendered in black rubber.)
Shortly before I saw Booker's show, I heard an audio recording of Ice-T reading a poem by C.K. Williams, "Newark Black: 1940-1954," that is included in New Jersey Noir, an anthology of stories and poems capturing the Garden State's brooding side. Williams' memories of the blackness he encountered everywhere growing up in Newark - not least "the filthy tires hung on hooks in the garage store we had to pass on our way to school" - unwittingly explain the sculpture of Chakaia Booker better than any art historian or critic will ever be able to do. (And if you listen to Ice-T, who transforms every single word of Williams' into a hair-raising visceral sensation, all the better.)
westphal/resources/LeonardPearlsteinGallery. Through March 8.
Speaking of cutting, Gross McCleaf Gallery has paired two artists who do it with a sense of play.
David Kettner begins his collages with children's drawings that he superimposes onto his own schemes, often juxtaposing the child's work with a page from an old coloring book, changing the meanings of both images to suit his whims.
Todd Keyser paints on his own photographs of anonymous-looking places, such as a playground minus the kiddies, and adding a painterly structure of his imagination that wasn't there before; he also paints on canvas, but his color fields interrupted by diagonal lines seem to want to deny the intervention of a human hand. Clever.
A solo show of paintings by Matthew Pinney in the gallery's back space catches the artist on a roll. Pinney's rainbow-hued oil paintings of people and places seen through stripes of color make one want to decipher the image behind the layer of abstraction atop it, but invite you to savor both simultaneously.
Gallery 339's final show is a lovely farewell to this photography gallery, and reminds photography lovers what we will be missing without it. Yes, we have the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center's terrific exhibitions, and galleries that show photographers, but it's not enough.
Some beauties here include Amanda Means' "Water Glass 3," Ruth Thorne-Thomsen's "Liberty Head, Illinois," and Donald E. Camp's "The Poet, Lamont Steptoe." But the rest of the gang looks great, too.