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.

Jeff Falk's mixed-media collage painting Good Job
Kathleen Vanesian
Jeff Falk's mixed-media collage painting Good Job
Multi-paneled painting Homer's Revenge by Brooke Grucella, the only show invitee from Tucson.
Multi-paneled painting Homer's Revenge by Brooke Grucella, the only show invitee from Tucson.
Sudan, an oversize black-and-white gelatin print by Jehu (a.k.a. photographer Jason Grubb
Sudan, an oversize black-and-white gelatin print by Jehu (a.k.a. photographer Jason Grubb
The Conversation, a painting by Brian Boner
The Conversation, a painting by Brian Boner
A backside view of Hector Ruiz's sculpture Kill Your Idols
A backside view of Hector Ruiz's sculpture Kill Your Idols
One of Us by Jason Rudolf Peña
One of Us by Jason Rudolf Peña
Carrie Marill's Qberty
Carrie Marill's Qberty

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.

I can't exactly pinpoint why I was so taken with Homer's Revenge by Tucson invitee Brooke Grucella. It's a large image composed of wood panels painted with ordinary house paint, as well as spray paint, nailed to a back gallery wall that's been painted bright rose. Stylistically, it's a possible cross between Lari Pittman and 1980s Kenny Scharf, with a bit of manga and Saturday morning cartoons thrown in to confused me.

The multi-panel piece depicts an eyeless, dark-haired, green-skinned female with braces and freckled cheeks, on whose forehead appears an exploding nuclear mushroom cloud. She may or may not be wearing a tennis outfit and may or may not be standing on an elliptical trainer decorated with a death's head that dissipates into thin air. One arm ends in a pile of chili fries and clutches a scepter with a red ball face with horn-rimmed glasses; surrounding and threading through the images are gooey cloud formations, but that's only a guess. In any event, the sheer complexity of Grucella's piece commands a second and third look.

I know exactly why I was pulled to Jason Rudolph Peña's painting, One of Us. It's taken from a scene in Freaks (1932), one of the most gut-wrenching, pathos-laced films of all time. It's an unforgettable cult movie that used real carnival sideshow performers commonly displayed for their deformities before such indignities were finally outlawed. The black-and-white cinema classic painted a sympathetically human image of such carnival performers, with "normal" people cast as villains. Peña has used the movie image of Schlitze the Pinhead, who was born Simon Metz in Yucatán, Mexico, with microencephaly, a condition resulting in a cone-shaped skull suggestive of the ancient Mayan practice of head binding and impaired mental abilities. Though a male, he was usually displayed as a female. Peña's piece freezes an excited Schlitze, who is barely intelligible in the film, in a scene in which "she's" being told by co-performer Phroso the Clown that her dress is very pretty and that when he goes to Paris, he will get her a hat to go with it. For me, the image produces instant heartache. Peña's effigy is bathed in a golden light, its poignant title valiantly including Schlitze in a much larger community.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention Colin Chillag's Being-Towards-Others, a half-painted, half-drawn canvas of a woman adorned with tattoos chatting poolside with a drink in her hand. Chillag used the left side of the canvas as a carefully labeled palette of color swatches, turning the painting into a study of the artist's painting process.

In the sculpture department, several pieces popped out. My pick of the litter includes Pete Deise's Pelvic Triangle, a roiling and spiky metal sculpture with seemingly non-existent welds and pristine white powder coating. While suggestive of the folk tale of the shark-toothed vagina dentata, it also calls to mind the painfully twisted maze of childbirth. Aaron Dunham's From the Depths, the Measured Climb Back to Self recycles wood from an Arizona gamble oak hit by lightning; sanded satin smooth and oiled, parts of the charred tree thread sensuously through each other in a flame-like configuration.

Hector Ruiz's Kill Your Idols, a gold foil-covered bull stuck with old Spanish swords and Native American arrows, rather than typical bullfighting paraphernalia, was a huge hit with the kids in the crowd, mainly because of the golden poop that Ruiz added as a finishing touch. Randy Slack's sculptural installation, mein Everest, pairs a 1951 VW Beetle the artist painstakingly restored over four long years with a large painting of what appears to be an old ad for the Volkswagen bug. It's an oversize shrine to the profound bromance between man and motorized machine that I have never been able to relate to.

In the category of photography, there was no ignoring Jehu's (nee photographer Jason Grubb's) Sudan, an enormous black-and-white print of an African male whose face is twisted in agony. His anguished expression metaphorically captures the political and social turmoil of the upended African nation, rocked for years by civil war and perverse human trafficking for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.

And I'm still trying to figure out how Brandon Sullivan created his digital projection, With an H. It's an ornately framed image of a woman looking into the distance; while she doesn't move, her hair does, as if blown by some unseen wind.

As for the bad and/or boring, Smoke by Melissa Martinez and Greg Richard gets a thumbs-down. The badly burned remains of a lightning-struck tree mounted on a metal stand just doesn't cut it, even as minimalism. Saying that something is art doesn't make it so. And I simply didn't get Part and Parcel by Steven Hofberger. The artist painted Greek figures, the outline of a blimp, and biomorphic shapes resembling bacillae on the side of a wooden packing crate, covered with a wash of orange that allows the pentimento of pre-existing shipping marks to emerge. Yes, crates are cool as a medium, but not enough to imbue Hofberger's image with much meaning or interest.

Also falling short was a mixed-media painting by Sentrock titled thought I was a real bird, which depicted a human face popping from an opening in a stylized bird's stomach. I'm not sure whether this was an autobiographical statement or a representation of a dream or something else — again, the point of this piece, not very well rendered, completely eluded me. And slapping a clever title onto a tired image of '60s radical Angela Davis (or maybe it's Phoebe Snow singing into a tape recorder) silk-screened, maybe spray-painted, onto pegboard, as Jules Demetrius did in Aerosoul, doesn't magically transmute a stale pictorial into something profound or even marginally engaging.

Ultimately, there were two real surprises for me in this year's Chaos Theory. Probably the biggest surprise of the evening — and a pleasant one, at that — was Jeff Falk's Good Job, a mixed-media canvas incorporating, among other things, weathered pieces of children's homework, pages from old children's primers and ripped-up dictionary entries. Center canvas is a vintage cartoon of a winking sunflower face surrounded by a star and an "A," two long-standing staples in a grammar school teacher's arsenal. However, the sweet nostalgia suffusing the piece is quietly undermined by that unsettling winking sunflower.

The less pleasant surprise of the evening was Carrie Marill's Qberty, lent by Scottsdale's Lisa Sette Gallery. The far from stellar gouache on paper features an unremarkable pattern of different colored stacked blocks. It's a mediocre, second-thought representation of the artist's current work and should never have been submitted to "Chaos Theory." If I weren't already familiar with Marill's art, would I even bother to see her current two-artist show at Scottsdale Center for Contemporary Art? Probably not.

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