Hundreds of artists and art fans made their way to downtown's Legend City Studios on a cool Friday night in October for Randy Slack's 13th annual art exhibition known as Chaos Theory. In years past, the event was as much about the after-hours party in the parking lot as the creative gathering inside the gallery, but this year, guests showed up earlier, there was less booze on the tables, and the hottest fashion accessory was a baby (and maybe a toddler or two).

Artists brought their families, their kids met and ran around large sculptures in the middle of the gallery, and a few commented on how "everybody's getting older" — a fact and sentiment that affected one of the biggest decisions Randy Slack's had to make in the 13 years of Chaos Theory.

The event has grown bigger and faster than Slack ever imagined, and this year, 60 artists were on the bill for the one-night show at the studio/gallery space painter Slack owns with three photographers, Jason Grubb, John Balinkie, and Brandon Sullivan.

Hundreds attended Chaos Theory 13, including numerous children, one reason curator Randy Slack refused some paintings.
Claire Lawton
Hundreds attended Chaos Theory 13, including numerous children, one reason curator Randy Slack refused some paintings.
Suzanne Falk's The Defenders of Sweet Dreams was shown during last year's Chaos Theory.
Courtesy of Suzanne Falk
Suzanne Falk's The Defenders of Sweet Dreams was shown during last year's Chaos Theory.
Eric Cox replaced the controversial piece he originally submitted with Welcome to Arizona.
Courtesy of Eric Cox
Eric Cox replaced the controversial piece he originally submitted with Welcome to Arizona.
Suzanne Falk's in heaven, everything is fine was refused for this year's Chaos Theory 13.
Courtesy of Suzanne Falk
Suzanne Falk's in heaven, everything is fine was refused for this year's Chaos Theory 13.
Eric Cox's candy coat was refused for Chaos Theory 13.
Courtesy of Eric Cox
Eric Cox's candy coat was refused for Chaos Theory 13.
The original event invitation.
The original event invitation.
The original event invitation was "re-created" by an anonymous artist and shared on Facebook in response to Randy Slack's curatorial decision.
The original event invitation was "re-created" by an anonymous artist and shared on Facebook in response to Randy Slack's curatorial decision.

Though Chaos Theory is known to showcase all levels of work by artists in all formats, Slack has always kept a close eye on what goes up on the walls and what doesn't make the cut — including pieces of his own and one by a close friend. This week, he learned the hard way that curatorial decisions can cause quite the ripple, thanks to social media.

Chaos Theory, as Slack explains, never has a theme. He invites a large number of artists to participate, including art community anchors, emerging artists, and some creatives who ask to be involved and show Slack a few pieces of their work. The actual works shown are all chosen by the artists and hastily dropped off the week of the show (often hours before he opens the doors). The chaos, he says, begins with the installation.

Over the phone on the Thursday evening before Chaos Theory 13, local painter Suzanne Falk described what happened when she tried to drop off her piece.

Falk grew up in Phoenix and is known for her hyper-realistic still-lifes of cartoon animals with innocent expressions and sugarcoated environments. She's been invited to showcase her work each year since the event's inception. But this year, things were a little different.

"I went and dropped off my painting," she says. "And I'm not naive. I assumed there was going to be a little bit of a fuss, but I never imagined that the delivery of the piece would be the issue."

Falk describes her piece as a reaction to a critique of last year's show by New Times art critic Kathleen Vanesian, who reviewed the show in the October 20, 2011, issue of the paper and wrote, in part:

"The same funky formlessness that's become a predictable part of this annual art exhibition is still the controlling factor in Chaos Theory XII — only I now appreciate why the term "chaos" is more than just theory in this show . . .

While Suzanne Meow Meow Falk's The Defenders of Sweet Dreams displays the artist's usual mastery of her medium, I just wish she would venture out of her comfort zone and mix a little acid with the sweetness of her nostalgic still-lifes."

Some artists would welcome a comment like that as constructive criticism. Indeed, with so many participating in Chaos Theory 12, Vanesian didn't write about each piece in the show. At the time, some were angry over being omitted from her review, saying they would have preferred a negative comment to nothing. Falk is not one of those artists.

"I took it hard," says Falk. "I spent months on that piece . . . So this year, I wanted to be a little campy, to call out some of the misogyny I've seen in other pieces in the show. I wanted to kick the box a little."

The piece she brought to Slack was a 5-by-7-inch oil on canvas titled in heaven, everything is fine.

The artist describes the painting, which depicts a number of young men in a circle jerk, or group masturbation, as something she's been interested in doing for a while. "I'm working on this body of work while I'm doing my other stuff," she says. "I thought it'd be a good opportunity to get some feedback from people who know me and know what I normally do."

Slack didn't bite. He says that though the piece didn't offend him personally, it didn't fit with the mission of the show, that Chaos Theory wasn't the venue in which to hang Falk's "fuck you to New Times" and was inappropriate for the all-ages audience that usually floods the huge studio/gallery space on Van Buren Street.

"It's a great painting," says Slack. "And if she'd approached me earlier, we could have made a booth or something."

Truth is, Slack already had drawn a line in the curatorial sand an hour earlier when another artist had stopped by with a painting he also refused. It was a piece by Phoenix artist Eric Cox, whose painting didn't fit the bill because of its imagery and message, according to Slack. The piece, titled candy coat is a 72-by-53-inch mixed-media piece on canvas of a nude female thrusting forward. According to Slack, it was what Cox described as a "fuck you to Phoenix."

Cox apparently understood the reaction and asked if he could submit something else.

"I think people need to understand that I have so much to consider when putting this show together," Slack told New Times just before the show. "Including the 1,000 people who are going to be here."

Cox spoke about his paintings in a long e-mail exchange with New Times on the night of Chaos Theory. He says he didn't see Slack's decision as anything personal but as something influenced by current culture and the opinions of the art community.

"I consider Randy a friend and I am not offended by how he handled curating Chaos Theory," he writes. "Having my painting sent back is not a reflection of Randy's personal beliefs but rather a direct reflection of the Phoenix art culture. The Chaos Theory show, along with other galleries, have their specific agendas, whether it be to have a grand party, make a statement, or to sell art. With that being said, my agenda is to continue to create, promote, and advance my art career, but it is also to express myself. I am an artist, and I intend to create a question with my work."

Cox says he created the piece in response to being censored by another gallery in Phoenix. "I will no longer candy-coat my subject, my process, or my intentions," he writes.

But for Chaos, he provided another piece. The large portrait, titled Welcome to Arizona, featured a dazed-looking Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a sombrero. It drew large groups of Chaos Theory attendees, who laughed, discussed, and stepped up to the painting for closer looks.

Cox and Falk say they saw the decision as an act of censorship, a practice in the art world that dates back to the beginning of art and continues in the contemporary art world. Notable and controversial examples include:

• The Corcoran Gallery of Art's refusing to show Robert Mapplethorpe's 1989 traveling photography exhibition of nude males because of the obscene, homoerotic, and sadomasochistic nature of the pieces, according to the curators,

• The continuing reactions, vandalism, and refusals to show photographer Andres Serrano's work, which often include coats of bodily fluids on religious and cultural subject matter,

• And the governmental shutdown of Chinese contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who was put in jail and had his studio destroyed by the Chinese government.

Slack's actions obviously were not as dramatic, but Falk and Cox were upset nonetheless.

"When I get turned down for a show — which I was invited to — because there is a vagina present in my nude female portrait, it reflects poorly on the scene," Cox writes. "Thus, it begs the question: What's so offensive about a vagina?"

Falk agrees. "Randy says there are going to be children at the show," she said Thursday night. "And that's fine with me. But I don't paint for children. So we hit a stalemate, and we were both pretty stymied by the situation. I left really upset . . . I guess he can do what he wants. It was just very surprising."

Falk posted on her Facebook page: "my painting for chaos theory was refused — i need time to choose my words for exactly what i want to say." She blocked Randy Slack from commenting or seeing the discussion, and in 24 hours, more than 175 comments from the art community poured in.

Accusations of homophobia and hypocrisy were common, but the main discussion turned to censorship. Slack says it definitely is not censorship.

"I've never censored anyone," he says. "I'm not a homophobe. I'm not a misogynist. I'm just an artist who happens to have an art show, and I've had to make some really difficult decisions. If Suzanne wants to push the boundaries and test her limits because of what Kathleen says, I'm not preventing her from doing so — she can paint sex acts all day. But I don't have to show them."

Vanesian insists Slack's decision was curatorial — not an act of censorship.

"If a circle jerk is artfully done, then it's a piece of art," she says. "But the intention appears to be not to be creating a piece of art, but making a statement in regard to an art review Ms. Falk was not happy with during the last show. I'm a great believer in the First Amendment, but Randy is the curator, and if Randy feels that a piece is inappropriate for whatever reason — it could be a shitty piece, if it doesn't fit in to the concept — then he has every right to decide who is in and who is out. No one has a constitutional right to be in Chaos Theory."

This was not the first — or even the second — time Vanesian became the center of attention as a result of Chaos Theory. After the first Chaos Theory show in 2000, her review was so poorly received someone anonymously mailed her a Bratz doll.

Slack says he understands Falk's situation because he's been there himself as an artist. "I've painted boobs, I've made edgy paintings, and for years, I didn't understand why I couldn't get into a gallery. So eventually, I opened my own. And [Falk] can do the same if she wants."

Slack also says that while he's showcased his own busty characters for Chaos Theory, he always finds a way to "cover them up" with T-shirts he adds before the show or huge lettering that's been painted over a few of his characters' chests.

Falk says that the piece is currently hanging in her studio and that interested buyers can seek her out personally.

Damon Breidenbach, another Phoenix artist posting on Falk's Facebook page, disagreed with Slack's actions:

"1. The painting is beautiful. 2. You were asked to submit a work and you did. It was rejected because of content which means you are being censored. Do not submit another work. 3. There has been nudity and sexually suggestive work in this show before and no one seemed to mind when it was painted by heterosexual white men. You are being censored. 4. In regards to #3, if you are being censored for content and you are a woman, an argument can be made or at least a discussion opened into whether or not this can be classified as unconscious misogyny or homophobia or both. That is fair game . . . I like Randy very much and definitely recognize his contributions as well as his talent, but this is a bad play on his part. He is turning his back on a peer and fellow artist whether he currently sees it that way or not."

James Angel, a local painter and member of 3CarPileUp, a contemporary painting group that includes Slack and David Dauncey, agreed with Slack's decision and admitted he, too, has had a piece rejected for the show.

"Randy did that to me a few years back — and I co-founded the event!" he wrote on Facebook. "Ultimately, it is his space, though, so he gets all the outrage from 80-year-olds and moms! Chaos Theory, though, is all this arts community has. Think about it. Don't piss in the well."

Turnout at the show was huge, as expected, with very little chaos.

There was just one protest. Local artist Pete Petrisko showed up in a blindfold and a T-shirt covered in "penises, vaginas, moaning faces, and . . . aeroplanes," according to Petrisko. He stood in silent protest — with a musical accompaniment by violinist Haley Tilden Ritter — for about 40 minutes. Petrisko calls his piece of performance art Shameful Parts for Happy Masses.

Slack says the night's events were "all in good fun" and that response to the show was overwhelmingly positive.

"I don't make any money on this thing," says Slack, who promises to continue curating and hosting the event despite the uproar and increased publicity. "All I do is lose sleep and spend money . . . The only thing I can control now is to make it happy for the masses."

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17 comments
fingerpainters
fingerpainters

you amateur artfags must realize that nobody outside of downtown phoenix has ever heard of you and wouldn't pay you any attention even if they had. you people should get jobs. making embarrassingly bad "art" in a cultureless city is not a job or even a worthy activity.

4letterword
4letterword

So ... let's test this non-chaos theory! Have ANY gallery owners stepped forward and offered to place this piece in an uncensored (no age restriction on admittance) gallery setting? If so MAYBE there is room to whine ... if not please shut up!

dain.gore
dain.gore

"Chaos Theory 13--Now with Less Chaos!"

carol344
carol344

It seems that all of this could have been abated if Randy had made it clear from the beginning that controversial work is subject to editing. Better yet, create an adults only section so artists can create work regardless of content. This way you can bring the kiddies and not worry. But, then we wouldn't have anything to talk about here which is all part of the fun of art/media/politics.

LetMeSeeTheColts
LetMeSeeTheColts

The reality is anyone CAN curate a show if they know what they’re doing but the first rule (especially for those not trained in the profession) is to live by the rules, the constraints, and the concept of the show. That’s the whole point of organizing a body of work in the first place, whether it’s for a solo or a group show. The mistake that was made here is that the Chaos Theory show is an invite to selected artists with work unseen until just before show time. Slack has the right to show or NOT show anything he wants, but not if the self-imposed constraints and concept of the show is that the work is unseen until the last minute. That’s curating. It’s just not fair to the artists and in this year’s example, it’s not fair to Cox and Falk. In a traditional gallery setting, Slack would have seen the work weeks beforehand and in a blue chip gallery or art institution setting, Cox and Falk may well have had contracts and could have sued for breach thereof. That’s not the situation here; it’s an artist run show in a studio space that operates as a gallery for one night a year, so all protection for the artist ceases to exist, which also then makes Slack open to valid criticism from his peers. I see both sides of the story here and I think Slack made a bad decision, but it’s easy to see why it happened and I sympathize with Slack, but only because I think he might not have thought of this and that his hand had been forced somewhat with what the show has now become and he made a rushed decision. The art of curating and dealing with the public is hard work and is often not best left to the artists themselves past a certain point. But if the show has grown and is now ‘all-ages’ or else has new rules against certain types of work, then Slack needs to spell this out in the future beforehand and the invited artists must also take this into consideration. Good lessons all around here for everyone.

 

Anonymous
Anonymous

This goes back to the pieces about whether anyone can curate a show. Randy Slack's choices here are curatorial decisions--not censorship. His gallery, his rules. The artists described in this story can still show their work anywhere else. Their art still exists. They can approach other galleries. They could get their own gallery and show them there. They could get a table and sell at garage sales. And we're able to view them on the pages of New Times (which would not have happened if they hadn't complained.)

QstionEvythng
QstionEvythng

So, Slack doesn't want to put porn on the walls for a show that he knows will have children in attendance.  And it seems that Slack was pretty even-handed about. (He rejected pieces depicting both  the male and female form so you can't accuse him of being homophobic in his selection; he rejected pieces by both female and male "artists" so you can't call him misogynic).  Seems like a stand-up decision to me.  I went to the show and brought my 10 year old so I very much appreciate Slack's curatorial decisions. While I know he has and will continue to receive criticism from some artists, I want to compliment his decision and compliment the show he hosted.

 

I don't know any of the artists personally, but it continues to sound like a lot of pouting by an artist who thinks her work is the cat's meow (pun intended) and can't stand a little criticism.  Your piece wasn't appropriate for this setting.  Get over yourself.  And don't be such a baby that you'r going to un-friend the gallery owner - are you still in middle school or what?

 

Oh, and I didn't realize that Pete Petrisko was supposed to be a protest piece.  It seemed poorly conceived and very sophmoric when I first saw it at the show.  Now that I know what it was supposed to represent, in retrospect it now strikes me as something you might see on a high school campus from a student who's upset that the administration won't publish his "edgy" article in the student newspaper - it now seems just that whiny.

dain.gore
dain.gore

 @carol344 I like all of these points. Problem is (as you alluded to), none of this would get your show on the cover of New Times!

LetMeSeeTheColts
LetMeSeeTheColts

'His space, his rules' begins to not hold as much weight if the rules have become flexible and subject to interpretation. The art world is just as much of a business as anything else. You cannot selectively apply one criteria (ownership of space) and not the other (running this type of art show).  

dain.gore
dain.gore

 @Anonymous and they were invited to show, and encouraged to push boundaries (read the press release).

wayne146
wayne146

 @LegitQuestions If you only knew how many "Suzy had a hissy fit" stories that are out there in the scene- this raises no eyebrows among those who know her penchant for staging drama. She's shot herself so many times in the feet in regards to her career, its amazing she isnt walking on her kneecaps.

dain.gore
dain.gore

@carol344 it has a certain "all-ages, yet-edgy" ring to it :)

anonymous
anonymous

 @LetMeSeeTheColts Good ideas here and I agree with much of what you say. Certainly the gallery owner can communicate differently if she or he wants to have a heavy hand in the section process. Regardless of the communication issues, the owner still can select the work and reject it.  It might seem unreasonable but businesses are not rarely about logic and moral obligation. The relationship between gallery owner and artist is not an equal one, though. It's heavily weighted in favor of the owner. (Just like in other businesses where the owner/boss has the power and the employee little.) Seems unfair doesn't it. I suppose the artists can join cooperative galleries where the artists assume the responsibilities of a gallery owner--that's an interesting solution. I like your comment about lessons to be learned. Plenty here on both sides.

anonymous
anonymous

 @dain.gore  @Anonymous Guess they pushed the curator's boundaries a little too much, huh! LOL.  Provocative content maybe just part of the decisions here. Perhaps the curator just didn't care for the work? His gallery, his rules. He gets to decide. Not me. Not you. Not anyone who shows up with art. He has no obligation to take any of it.

dain.gore
dain.gore

@anonymous @Anonymous agreed, but there's a serious problem if being okay with accepting art "sight unseen" up to hours before opening is an accepted format, and now we see the result.

 
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