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Strength and delicacy, sculpture and prints

Untitled work on woodblock from 2013.

Much has been made of sculptor Chakaia Booker’s primary material: discarded old tires she chops, slices, twists, and fastens into fierce works reverberating with sexual, social, and environmental themes. Less attention has been paid to her industrial-grade tools. But when she began working with the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, in 2009, the familiar drill bits, grinders, and chisels called to her. With them, she attacked woodblocks.

“Chakaia Booker: Speakeasy” at the Kniznick Gallery in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University sets the artist’s bold and bristling rubber sculptures amid her startlingly delicate prints. It’s a fertile give-and-take that ultimately expands how we read the sculptures. (Maybe you’ve seen her work: Booker had a show at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in 2010).

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An untitled woodblock print hangs near “Random Thought,” a wall sculpture with snarled tentacles that loop and splay around two sideways-protruding, bug-eyed barbell shapes. The print, too, features a central tangle (looser, more orderly) set over a whispering ground of colored cut paper. It’s ornately bordered, and striated tentacles — wormy, yet like nails — scissor around that border.

Besides the tools that made them, these two works share knots, patterns, and whipping lines that send the eye on a tilt-a-whirl ride, characteristics that may spring from Booker’s early forays into weaving. Many of the prints here, with their borders, columns, and patterns, echo African textiles and, more distantly, early American needlework and a history of women making decorative art.

They’re not all decorative, and none could be called prim. Another untitled print, a hand-painted chine-collé, depicts a woman with legs open (that dynamic line again!), her vagina at the center of the composition like a heart. But the prints are all fragile, often made with rice paper. Next to them, Booker’s dark sculptures appear more brawny, brooding, and vital, creatures of the shadows brought out by the light.

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CHAKAIA BOOKER: SPEAKEASY

At Kniznick Gallery, Women’s Studies Research Center, Brandeis University, 515 South St., Waltham, through Nov. 4. 781-736-8100, www.brandeis.edu/wsrc/arts/current.htm


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.