Chaos Theory 13: The Good, the Bad, and the Meh

Despite the bad juju ordinarily associated with the number 13, the 13th time truly turned out to be a charm for downtown Phoenix's annual Chaos Theory exhibition. The one-weekend-only annual invitational show — started by an art consortium then known as 3CarPileUp, consisting of artists Randy Slack, James Angel, and David Dauncey — celebrated its 13th anniversary on October 5 at Legend City Gallery, at Fifth Avenue and Van Buren. This year, the eternally resilient exhibition hit its pubescent prime with the frenetic energy that only a hormone-fueled teen hell bent on getting tickets to a Justin Bieber concert could muster.

I've got to admit that, overall, the work in the show is surprisingly noteworthy. I say surprisingly because Chaos Theory's reputation for consistent quality in the past has been patchy, at best. As has happened every year since 2000, each artist invited to participate in the downtown group extravaganza submits his or her work, hitherto unseen and usually at the 11th hour, to Randy Slack, who now continues the annual Chaos Theory tradition singlehandedly at the studio/gallery he owns and shares with several other artists.

This year, the show was expanded to 60 artists working in and around the Phoenix area. For the first time, an invitation was ecumenically extended to a Tucson artist, Brooke Grucella, a big deal in the annual exhibit's history of Phoenix exclusivity.

Though not all the work presented in this year's show can be deemed potentially Louvre-worthy, the proportion of good to just meh (that category of mediocrity between hot and not "not hot") was heavily weighted toward the good. I was particularly impressed with the fine-tuned technical skills on display. It's apparent that participating artists really have started to get serious about Chaos Theory and stepped up their games considerably. Abandoning the "let's put a play on in the backyard" mentality that characterized the show for too long, they're finally figuring out that their choice of submission has an impact lasting much longer than just the three-day weekend of the show.

Hey, you just never know where your next collector might come from. Witness the fact that Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum support group was slated to visit the show for a tour guided by curator (or anti-curator, as the case may be) Slack on Saturday, the day after the opening.

As usual, I gravitated — more like levitated — to personal standouts, honestly trying to eschew any preconceived notions I might have about a particular artist's oeuvre. In some cases, I didn't have a clue as to what a particular artist had produced in the past, while in others I was more than familiar with his or her body of work.

I was instantly drawn to two pieces placed next to each other, a painting titled The Chairman of Art and Fashion by Larry Willis and an installation work, Claims to Fame, by the Molten Brothers (painter Kenneth Richardson and mixed-media artist Mike Goodwin). Both aim at issues of fame, fad, fashion, glory and their odd assortment of current tastemakers. Installed next to one another, they create real dialogue in the space bristling between them about who and what sets today's cultural pace.

Willis' crisply executed painting features a come-hither blonde in a classic red-starred Mao cap, a mind-meld between supermodel Kate Moss and Dancing with the Stars hostess Cat Deely. She's dressed in a flatly rendered polka dot sheath and holds an issue of Artforum, the contemporary art world's bible, covered in a rainbow-hued Louis Vuitton logo design. Behind her is a backdrop filled with Warhol's iconic pop art images of Mao Zedong and spray-stenciled, forever fashionable, Chantilly lace.

The Molten Brothers' installation consists of a mantelpiece displaying an Olympic medal and Wheaties box, made over as "Vain-eaties," decorated with a strange, but snidely accurate, caricature of plasticized 1976 Olympic decathlon/Kardashian stepfather Bruce Jenner, sporting a bad face lift and a body sling worthy of Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat. Next to that glows a golden sculpture of the legendary badonkadonk of Jenner's famous-for-being-famous stepdaughter Kim Kardashian, subtly inscribed with the signature of hip-hop singer Ray J, with whom Kim made a now very public sex tape. That's flanked by a bottle of her eponymous perfume, a celebrity scent ridiculously pimped as "the perfect thing to leave others wanting more."

Other two-dimensional pieces of note include Jeg elsker Dig by Matt Priebe, featuring a dreamy portrait of a woman looking skyward on a "canvas" composed of wooden dowels set on end and gessoed. Only on close inspection does the viewer realize that the softly ambiguous image is not a drawing or smudgy sketch, but a photographic imprint. David Dauncey's Ruby Revisited is a kinetic, larger than life-size rendering of a baby's face, composed of impressionistic slashes of oil paint that, when viewed from afar, melt into a glimmering, multi-hued image.

Brian Boner deserves mention for The Conversation, a painting of a man texting "miss you" and a woman texting "miss you too" across a field filled with alphabet soup against which Boner has painted a carrier pigeon. The viewer can only guess whether the couple are in the same room together, only several feet apart — an all too common scenario — or on opposite sides of the globe. And I know I've claimed all too often that I would never look at another Sheriff Joe Arpaio send-up. But Eric Cox's Welcome to Arizona, a deftly detailed image of a befuddled Arpaio in a sombrero lined with dangling pompoms and a serape that drips off the canvas, is now the sole item on my exception list.

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