A crushed oil drum sits just inside the entrance to Legend City Studios during October's First Friday art walk. Painted red, white, and blue, it’s the work of Joe Willie Smith. It's called The Great Experiment.
Smith is one of 84 artists selected to participate in “Chaos Theory 18,” the latest iteration of an annual exhibition held at Legend City Studios in downtown Phoenix.
It’s an invitational show, featuring artists selected by organizer Randy Slack. Rather than curating the exhibit, he lets fellow artists bring whatever they like, provided it’s tame enough for young viewers and doesn’t take up too much space.
Smith’s sculpture is about the size of a compact car door. It’s set atop a small stand that makes it look like a trophy or globe.
The "experiment" could refer to any number of things – including American democracy, the election of a president outside the political class, or the rise of oil-based economies.
Like several works featured in the Friday, October 6, show, it captures the pulse of the present political moment – reflecting the collision of individual and collective angst.
So do pieces by Kristin Bauer, Annie Lopez, and Michael Lundgren, to name a few.
Unlike earlier “Chaos Theory” exhibitions that featured art skewering political figures like former sheriff Joe Arpaio and one-time governor Jan Brewer with bold caricatures, this show tackles politics with subtlety.
That’s its greatest strength.
It’s a stark contrast to most of the political works shown in Phoenix during the era of Donald Trump, both before and shortly after he was elected president.
Last fall, a trio of Trump portraits at Fine Art Complex 1101 in Tempe included one with a Hitler-style mustache. After Trump’s election, Beatrice Moore hired a California artist to paint an anti-Trump billboard, featuring a portrait with a pair of swastika-like dollar signs.
The latest Mutant Piñata art show on Grand Avenue included a man-baby Trump in a diaper. Another Grand Avenue exhibit, called “Nasty Women: Phoenix Unite,” featured the first sighting of Ann Morton’s white cloth embroidered with red and blue that gave a grammatical spin to the burning question, “Are we fucked?”
The artists who tackled shifting politics and social policies at “Chaos Theory 18” registered resistance in firm whispers rather than screams.
Consider the way Annie Lopez addresses concerns that her voice isn’t being heard.
Lopez was an early member of Movimiento Artístico del Río Salado (or MARS), a grassroots group founded in 1978 to promote Chicano and Native American artists. For many years, their alternative arts space was a hub for the downtown arts scene.
Yet her expertise hasn't been tapped by the City of Phoenix, now that officials are formally exploring options for creating a new Latino Cultural Center.
For "Chaos Theory 18," Lopez put a new twist on her paper dresses made using cyanotype photography.
She's best known for dresses with dark blue text culled from family documents such as medical records or immigration papers. But this year, with a piece titled For Me to Know, she turned those materials inside out, making the words difficult to read.
Kristin Bauer created (us. vs.) THEM using ultraviolet cured ink on Plexiglas with aluminum. Like Smith’s crushed metal sculpture, it prompts reflection on several issues – including anti-immigrant policies, hate-filled rhetoric, and partisan politics.
Bill Dambrova inserted dark, fractured abstractions into his biology-inspired forms, for a mixed-media piece with an ominous title: You Are the Next to Be Eaten.
Several artists tackled global warming and the environment.
For Ellen Wagener, it took the form of a painted landscape marred by dark shadows. Lucretia Torva painted a landscape dotted with a single, small, red Monopoly-style hotel.
The Fortoul Brothers painted a bold graphic that reduces the world to a few basic elements: earth, animal, and woman. Michael Lundgren showed a pigment print of two parallel tree trunks, joined by a silver chain as if they were being held captive against their will.
Even Randy Slack's large-scale painting, depicting the artist and his wife amid an idyllic outdoor setting, has political overtones. Slack painted a beloved Volkswagen beside them, but set a factory with four towering chimneys in the background.
The best take on the environment was hard to spot in Tara Logsdon’s mixed-media Bear Atone installation.
Her video showing people using leaves and other natural objects in place of electronic devices like laptops and cellphones was obscured by dozens of items placed around it inside a shopping cart, and a trail of plastic American flags running up to the ceiling.
Without the clutter, it would have been one of the show’s most striking and effective works.
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Two additional pieces stood out during “Chaos Theory 18,” because they reference changes happening right here in our own community.
With a simple white porcelain figure placed under a bell jar, Jacob Meders explored Phoenix sites built on sacred land. Colton Brock addressed the issue of historic preservation with a painting of the former Stewart Motors Company building that housed a Tower Records before new owners undertook partial demolition.
Although Slack never picks a theme for “Chaos Theory” exhibitions, this year’s show confirmed that Arizona artists are continuing to address heated social, cultural, and political topics.
But they’re getting more sophisticated, demonstrating that the art equivalent of a shouting match isn’t always necessary to make a point – or have real power.