"Chaos Theory" Has Gone From Funky to Formulaic at Legend City Studios in Phoenix

Randy Slack's California Jamboree, 1985 is on view in "Chaos Theory 15."
Randy Slack's California Jamboree, 1985 is on view in "Chaos Theory 15."
Lynn Trimble

The "Chaos Theory" exhibition at Legend City Studios opened on First Friday to big crowds and social media praise. But during its 15-year history, the event has gone from funky to formulaic.

About half of the 19 artists invited to show works in 2000 still participate and only nine of the 69 artists included this year are first-timers, says organizer Randy Slack, who founded "Chaos Theory" with James Angel and David Dauncey, fellow members of the 3CarPileUp artist collective.

They named the event for the mathematical principle that says small changes can produce big effects, and they were early adopters of the First Friday art walk. All deserve kudos for helping build what's become a full-fledged arts scene, but the time has come to stop celebrating the past 15 years and start creating the next 15.

See also: 10 Must-See Art Exhibitions in Metro Phoenix This Fall

Today's "Chaos Theory" is like a party bus filled with back-slapping buddies. It's more a reunion of old friends than an incubator of new talent. Innovations critical to growing the city's art scene happen elsewhere, such as ARTELPHX, which turns rooms at the Clarendon Hotel into visual and performing arts spaces.

Slack says he chooses artists for "Chaos Theory" because he likes their work, "good vibes," and activism in the arts scene. They're asked to bring new works sized to fit in the space, although this year's crop included several pieces loaned from galleries and others far too similar to works shown during exhibits at nearby spaces.

His own California Jamboree, 1985 depicting a bikini-clad woman near a towering trophy, hangs near the gallery's central space. Lacking a distinct belly button and surrounded by Disney-like forest fare, she reads like a critique of the very commercialization that's crept into "Chaos Theory" in recent years.

There's not much risk-taking evident in this year's show.

Slack says he's reticent to be called "curator" because that makes him feel like The Man. But he's clearly curating the show by virtue of choosing and organizing its content, and his return year after year to a relatively steady crop of artists has dampened its freshness factor.

It seems Slack figured he'd hit the sweet spot years ago, then decided to simply replicate it rather than starting with a blank canvas each year.

Several artists, including Jehu and Steve Gompf, submit similar pieces each year. Their works, like sculptures by Pete Deise and Slack's own large-scale paintings, get similar placement inside the space. It's an approach that eases Slack's setup but makes the exhibit less fresh for patrons who return year after year.

Slack did try to mix it up this year by adding outdoor fashion and video components, but something more is needed -- more invitations to artists who have never shown at "Chaos Theory," even if space constraints mean some of Slack's favorite artists can't be included as regularly. Or a transition from invitational to juried exhibition, with several jurors choosing the best works submitted through an open call to artists.

To Slack's credit, many of the artists he has invited through the years have real talent, and several have made significant contributions to the Phoenix art community.

Rachel Bess, whose Daydreaming of Futures Past oil on panel painting was lent by Lisa Sette Gallery to "Chaos Theory," earned this year's artist award from Phoenix Art Museum's Contemporary Forum support group.

Colin Chillag got the Forum's mid-career artist award last year. Other "Chaos Theory 15" artists who received forum grants include Bill Dambrova, Lauren Strohacker/Kendra Sollars, Larry Madigral, Ben Willis, James Angel, and Melissa Martinez.

Cindy Dach, whose folksy sunflower piece One is exhibited this year, co-founded the Roosevelt Row CDC, which she helped transform into the Roosevelt Row Artists' District and focused on both art and the needs of working artists.

She co-founded the organization now called Local First Arizona, and is both co-founder and general manager for Changing Hands Bookstore, which opened its Phoenix store earlier this year.

Dach and her husband, fellow artist Greg Esser, have demonstrated relentless creativity in co-creating place-making initiatives with other artists -- such as pop-up arts spaces that include shipping containers transformed into temporary galleries.

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It's tough to know the role "Chaos Theory" has played in these artists' development, but it's certainly true that they don't need the exposure to make names for themselves. It's time artists who've grown accustomed to taking part each year share the love.

In terms of this year's show, I'm partial to Emmett Potter's Big Dipper, an acrylic on canvas piece that blends pop art with the Wild West to reflect roots of both contemporary art and the state of Arizona.

Thomas "Breeze" Marcus showed his versatility with Svik Naksal at "Chaos Theory 15."
Thomas "Breeze" Marcus showed his versatility with Svik Naksal at "Chaos Theory 15."
Benjamin Leatherman

Several muralists featured in "Chaos Theory" provide interesting variations on their usual themes. Concentric lines on Andy Brown's Inside Out, which appear to shift when viewed from the side, conjure images of his colorful tree rings painted on the Westminster building on Roosevelt Row. There's a more human than creature-like feel to The Higher Plane by Ashley Macias, whose subjects sometimes resemble geometric gristle fused with technology.

Thomas "Breeze" Marcus shows his versatility with Svik Naksal, a red medallion sporting a scorpion. Colton Brock delivers a tasteful take on urban blight with his oil on canvas Historic Desert Inn Motel.

Ruben Gonzales' craftsmanship on a wood with metal gears piece titled Decadre is exceptional, and there's a nifty resin sheen on Lori Fenn's stunning circle of symmetry titled All Signs Point to Here.

Jon Balinkie's Holiday Twin Summer 2014 photograph of two drive-in movie screens suggests the whole of America's battle with blight and addiction to new technology. Text in an Annie Lopez archival pigment print titled Illegitimate reads like a nano-novella, engaging the viewer by eliciting emotions.  

Brian Boner's Sponge is on view in "Chaos Theory 15."
Brian Boner's Sponge is on view in "Chaos Theory 15."
Benjamin Leatherman

I lingered longest over Brent Bond's palm-size Mermaid, intrigued by the folds of olive fabric cradling a slice of fleshy pink seashell with a hole at its center. It's a simple but sophisticated take on sensuality. Brian Boner's oil on canvas Sponge made me wonder about the effect of food and farming practices on future generations.

Lighting creates playful shadows around Joe Willie Smith's A Chair for Calder, one of several sculptures offering respite in a room filled predominantly with paintings.

In years past, several artists have submitted pieces with a jab du jour mentality, poking fun at politicians or pop culture personalities. Gone are pieces depicting the likes of Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio, Dennis Rodman, and Kim Kardashian. That's a plus because they've got such a short shelf life. I missed that this year.

The Molten Brothers (Kenneth Richardson and Mike Goodwin) deliver a more generic dig this year with Visual Clutter, a work made with pieces of campaign signs that suggests we "fire 'em all."

An outdoor video installation by Strohacker and Sollars shows vultures, transformed from ugly, hunched-over creatures to beautiful swan-like birds once they've fully spread their wings. The revelation is intriguing and filled with implications for everyday life.

Unfortunately, some artists submitted pieces this year that don't match the quality of their prior body of work. It appears at times that "Chaos Theory" artists have figured they should stick to one small portion of a paint-by-numbers design, using only the colors that come with the kit.

Most predictable is J.B. Snyder's Strength in Numbers, a spray paint on wood work channeling his myriad murals. Also disappointing is Tara Logsdon's forBEARance featuring teddy bears hung from an IV pole and connected by a long loop of colorful bands to another bear seated in a brown vinyl chair. It's an aesthetic dud with no clear meaning.

Esser's Strong Roots Still Burn looks like something mass-produced to hang in waiting rooms. Nothing pulls viewers into his trio of small trees dwarfed by a large blue background. They sit atop squares filled with text in a language most folks won't recognize. It's difficult to fathom, considering his bold work in transforming diverse materials from rusty nails to six tattoos on six different artists into works of unconventional art.

Even Chillag, whose recent body of work has consisted mostly of deconstructed portraits that reveal his own artistic process through sketched lines left unpainted and splotches or squares of paint that form a work's color palette, chose a tame piece for this year's show. His Portrait of Jenna Taking a Self-Portrait features accessible subject matter, but there's little in the piece that fuels viewer curiosity.

In a city teeming with talent, I expect something more. More edge. More humor. More surprise. More unconventional use of materials. More works reflecting spaces and issues uniquely Arizona's own.

Your last chance to see "Chaos Theory 15" is from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, October 17, at Legend City Studios, 521 West Van Buren Street.

See also: First Friday in Downtown Phoenix: October 2014 in Photos

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