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In "Chaos Theory XII," the Decent Art Easily Stands Out Among the Rest

Two Step by Shauna Thibault

Way back in the mists of time — September 2000, to be exact — I reviewed one of the very first "Chaos Theory" shows, which have become an arts institution in this town. At that time, the show was installed at 3CarPileUp, a gallery/studio started by now well-known Phoenix artists Randy Slack, James Angel, and David Dauncey.

I definitely didn't earn any fans after I dinged the show big-time in a review titled No Big Bang, A Big Gong. I even received a blond, pony-tailed Bratz doll in the mail, which, I have to assume, came from a disgruntled artist I must have nailed.

After 11 years, I decided to revisit the scene of the crime, which was still going strong as "Chaos Theory XII," though the show has moved to Legend City Studios, the 10,000-square-foot space/gallery owned and operated by Slack and three photographers, Jason Grubb, John Balinkie, and Brandon Sullivan. This time, I avoided the social circus that seems to be a mandatory part of art openings and visited the show in the peaceful, hungover atmosphere of the day after. It didn't help that an entire bank of spotlights in the back of the gallery were out, making it a little hard to get a real feel for the un-illuminated pieces. And it would have been nice if wall texts actually informed you of the medium from which the work was crafted — and a typed list of exhibition pieces definitely would have been appreciated.

That aside, 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. Randy Slack, who has continued the "Chaos Theory" tradition all these years, explains that, each year, he invites not only people who have been a part of the show in the past, but new artists he's met, friends of friends, or ones who have approached him to be included. Some are not necessarily known to the public, but they are chosen because he likes what they show him initially.

Slack also makes it clear that he does not curate the show in any way, shape or form; there is no overarching theme, ever. Each artist (this year, there are more than 50 of them) chooses a particular piece to be exhibited. Ergo, it's somewhat of a crapshoot as to what ends up in the show. Work comes in up to several hours before showtime, and Slack bustles to get everything hung and labeled in time for the opening crowds.

This egalitarian, slapdash approach explains the unevenness in the quality of work that ended up in "Chaos Theory XII." In fact, nothing's changed after all these years, except that I now have more wrinkles, and the decent work on display almost literally pops out from the rest.

And the rest? The range was all over the place, per usual. A number of participating artists are incapable of the ruthless self-editing that's necessary to a show like this. Take, for example, Jeff Falk, whose painting, "A Cat Walks In . . .," shows absolutely no discernible evolution in the artist's oeuvre in the 11 years since my first review. It's a badly painted image of Jesus teaching little children over which Falk has written an incomprehensible, nay, nonsensical bar joke that has nothing remotely to do with the underlying image. Maybe that was the point — that the teachings of Christ are on a par with a bad joke?

Nor was I particularly bowled over by Dayvid LeMmon's archival pigment print, Polynomial Multi-sequence Generation Terminal, a photographic pastiche of digitalized images that were about as interesting as watching snow on a broken VCR. Equally uninspiring was John Balinkie's Sophie's Cord, an out-of-focus image, taken with a pinhole camera, of a baby playing with what we're led to believe is a withered umbilical cord, maybe her own. If there was a point to Jon Aruiezu's Victory for All, a mono-silk-screened image of the word "victory" emanating from a blue star against a red and khaki field, I completely missed it.

One piece that did pop out for me — in a good way — was William LeGoullon's Fingerprints of a Drinkable Culture, an ambiguous five-paneled work incorporating circles subtly filled with unidentifiable dots, drops, and washes of presumably drinkable liquids. Two Step, a painting by Shauna Thibault laid in thin washes of oil on a wood panel, features a butterfly intimately engaged with a beetle. The viewer must decide whether their union is fanciful or a death dance. And though ordinarily not a fan of Henry Shoebel's typically formalist canvases, I did gravitate to Veriform #1, a canvas filled with undulating black-and-white barbell forms set off by strategically placed rhinestones and a transparent veil of glitter that seem to light up the piece. (At least, I think that's the title, since all the wall texts were in a difficult-to-read, double-lined typeface.)

I was particularly taken with two sculptural pieces that are real standouts in the show. Hector Ruiz's cast-bronze White Bread, a caped cartoon figure with a slice of bread for a head, is what I imagine you might get when a Tom Otterness sculpture mates with one by Jeff Koons. I was equally gratified to see that Steve Gompf still is making his fictitious "televisors," with their artist-created mythology as forerunners of modern-day televisions. Gompf's latest one is an over-the-top, black-and-gold, ormolu-encrusted table, topped with what are probably repurposed bowling trophies and brass eagles, that's supposed to date to the mid-1800s. Another sculpture that caught my eye was Ruben Gonzales' untitled gun, cobbled from old metal components and a bicycle chain and seemingly banished to the back of the gallery.

Too bad Ellen Wagener's Italian Landscape minus Lisa was one of the pieces that went lightless. It appears to be a beautifully stylized version of the Italianate landscape behind the Mona Lisa, but that's pretty much a guess. 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. Melanie Corradi's Both of Me, a dual-headed portrait using a rough, expressionist technique reminiscent of Lucien Freud, has a psychological rawness to it that made it impossible to ignore.

It was equally impossible to ignore Randy Slack's gigantic canvas, Let Freedom Ring, immediately recognizable as being a still from The Bad News Bears, a 1976 film starring Walter Matthau as a has-been, alcoholic minor leaguer turned pool cleaner in charge of a Little League team composed of a motley assortment of misfit kids with outrageously foul and politically incorrect mouths. The artist was 10 at the time he saw the movie, which apparently resonated with his pre-pubescent persona. Slack's sketchy, essentially monochromatic version of the photo has the face of Ahmad Abdul-Rahim, the black Muslim kid on the team, painted so dark that it's painfully obvious, while the face of the Mexican kid on the team is basically obliterated with brown paint; it's a potent statement about racial bias that continues despite objections to the contrary.

And it's no surprise that I gravitated to Colin Chillag's Tourist, a half-rendered, half-painted oil on canvas taken from a camera-dated photo of a man snapping off a shot of some desert mesa. It speaks volumes about what in life is virtual or reproduced and what is actually real.

As for the artists I haven't mentioned, I should point out that I'm under space constraints. So don't bother sending me another one of those obnoxious Bratz dolls in protest.

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