"Chaos Theory" at Legend City Studios in Downtown Phoenix Serves Up Comfort Food, Again

Everybody has their favorite comfort foods, the ones they return to time and time again when they want to feel safe and satisfied. Think mac and cheese, or ice cream eaten right out of the container. They're beloved for their familiarity, or the memories they conjure.

That same impulse to embrace the soothing and familiar was evident in this year’s “Chaos Theory,” an invitational art exhibition organized for the 16th year by Phoenix artist Randy Slack of Legend City Studios. But here, that familiarity is a dangerous thing — lulling artists and gallery-goers into feeling satiated by sameness.

Art is all about creativity — and that means change. "Chaos Theory" gives artists the chance to really showcase this creativity — exploring new materials, processes, or conceptual frameworks in a safe and welcoming space. More artists should seize it. 

However, “Chaos Theory” has become the art equivalent of comfort food. Slack’s invite list varies just slightly from year to year, and artists continue to show up with works that deviate little from their norm. Both Alexandra Bowers’ woodburning (The Signature Roadrunner) and Frank Gonzalez’s painting (an owl with his characteristic drips, titled Mirando al Futuro) looked like just about every other piece they’ve shown around town. It’s not that the work isn’t good. It’s just that even comfort foods lose their appeal when served too often.

Bowers and Gonzalez have plenty of company. For those even moderately familiar with the metro Phoenix arts scene, works by artists including Jeff Falk, Annie Lopez, Abbey Messmer, John Randall Nelson, Steve Gompf, Lori Fenn, Bill Dambrova, and Gennaro Garcia offered nothing remotely surprising or unexpected. Instead, their "Chaos Theory" contributions were perfectly predictable. It couldn't hurt to vary the artist line-up a little more each year, especially if "Chaos Theory" regulars aren't bringing fresh work to the table.

Fortunately, some of the 60-plus artists featured in this year’s exhibition, a one-night-only affair that took place from 6 p.m. to midnight on Friday, October 2, mixed the menu up a bit. Greg Esser delivered a small cut paper piece (El Diablo Guapo Desde Abajo), and Emmett Potter showed a trio of small images called Pseudo Polaroid Triptych. Both artists demonstrated the versatility that’s long marked their bodies of work, thus adding much-needed variety to this year’s “Chaos Theory” offerings.

Carolyn Lavender, whose best-known works include the large-scale Preservation Woods featuring taxidermy animals in a forest setting, showed a delightful variation on the real-versus-artificial theme that infuses much of her work. Her small graphite and acrylic Rhino - Rhino depicts a living rhinoceros next to a rhinoceros figurine, each removed from its environment and scaled as if to suggest the ways real and fake have been conflated in contemporary culture. The turn from taxidermy to trinkets isn't monumental, but it's enough to give the attentive viewer pause.

Kendra Sollars and Lauren Strohacker delivered a fresh take on their Animal Lands video projections featured this past year at Phoenix Art Museum, Mesa Arts Center, and Tucson Museum of Art. Their big cat seemed to perch atop one of Slack’s vintage sideboards located at the back of the exhibition space, even as a bear standing upright appeared eager to escape the confines of a nearby wall. Last year, they projected images of vultures, which went from ugly to beautiful as they spread their wings in flight, onto an exterior wall facing the Legend City Studios parking lot. 

This year’s best works included All in a Day by Cindy Dach, who embroidered two small panels depicting opposing teams engaged in the tug-of-war most remember playing during childhood. The rope they share runs between the two pieces, which comprise a work that simultaneously channels both the local and the global. Another stand-out was Ben Willis’ trio of small acrylic and resin on panel pieces titled Three Self-Portraits, which demonstrate the power of essentials including line and color while exuding a playfulness that adds to their charm.

Three works exhibited in a single corner, all by artists represented by Lisa Sette Gallery, were equally captivating. Rachel Bess' small-scale oil painting (Spoils) — which depicts palms cupped and turned upwards, holding teeth and small red crystals — stood out for two reasons: exceptional technique and intriguing subject matter. Carrie Marill's painting (Truce) — in which she piled dollops of color like stones, then set a a white flag atop them — brought her characteristic use of multiple bright colors to issues at the heart of contemporary society: diversity and divisive rhetoric.

It's been nearly a decade since Mayme Kratz showed work at "Chaos Theory," according to Slack. Her piece (Cradle) — comprising a fragile bat skeleton encased in a resin ball placed inside a fishing line cradle suspended in the air — demonstrated her facility in coupling resin with natural materials in new ways. Let's face it, loose teeth and bat skeletons hardly count as comfort food.

Several of this year's painted portraits fused strong technique with emotive power. They include Brian Boner's Girl With Eyes Closed, Larry Madrigal's Jonni Cheatwood, and Rick Toerne's Girl With a Green Tiara.

After 16 years, Slack’s show has developed its own history and lore, comprised in part of exhibition reviews and artistic responses to them. After Suzanne Falk showed a scene of bunnies at bedtime (The Defender of Sweet Dreams) in 2011 for "Chaos Theory" 12, former New Times art critic Kathleen Vanesian wrote that she "wished the artist would venture out of her comfort zone and mix a little acid with the sweetness of her nostalgic still lifes." Falk created a radically different piece for "Chaos Theory" 13 in 2012. She submitted a painting titled in heaven everything is fine, which depicted several men engaging in group masturbation. Slack refused to display it, noting the all-age audience for the show, and took plenty of social media flack for his decision. 

Both J.B. Snyder and Jehu delivered interesting iterations on past “Chaos Theory” pieces that seem cognizant of prior critiques of their work. We pegged Snyder’s Strength in Numbers the “most predictable” piece in last year’s show. This year he showed what looks like a light box (sans lighting) featuring his signature line work devoid of color. Instead of his usual black-and-white photographs of a homeless man, Jehu submitted a photograph of a wheelchair set on its side atop the dirt. Awash in a rainbow of color that adds nothing to the work's aesthetic value, the piece could easily be perceived as a reaction to Vanesian's 2013 New Times review of "Chaos Theory" 14, for which she wrote: "Jehu gives us yet another dollop of the Ten Dollar Project with Kyle Russ, a large black-and-white photograph of a disheveled man with a beard and matted hair, evoking none of the pathos of his anguished portrait of an African man from last year's show."

Slack started “Chaos Theory” with James Angel and David Dauncey, fellow members of a former artist collective called 3CarPileUp. They named the show for a mathematical principle noting that small changes can have big effects. 

The principle is evident in Slack’s own work, a giant three-canvas painting (That was then,This is now...Burtney) conjuring a 1972 centerfold in Cosmopolitan magazine. Slack transformed a nude Burt Reynolds reclining on his side (with groin concealed by one arm) by adding a blonde wig. It's Caitlyn Jenner's hairstyle from her recent Vanity Fair cover, Slack explains, with actress and Reynolds ex-wife Lonnie Anderson's hair color. His rendition of the Trans Am logo was added to reference both Reynolds' role in the movie Smokey and the Bandit, and Jenner's transgender identity. It's an especially interesting choice given that Slack has faced controversy in years past for showing women, but not men, in provocative works.

"Chaos Theory" regulars surely noticed a couple of humorous (and tame) twists on nudity this time around — the Fortoul Brothers’ Fruition pairing a pineapple with the outline of a nude woman, and Josh Rhodes’ Nudes painting filled with his characteristic creatures done in pale flesh tones. It's hard to see anything involving nudity at "Chaos Thoery" now without recalling prior accusations from misogyny to homophobia hurled at Slack due to prior curatorial decisions. 

Although Slack didn’t ask artists to create works aligned with his “sweet 16” publicity theme, these works channel the rebellion so characteristic of this age and stage. But they weren’t enough to fundamentally alter Slack’s tried-and-true "Chaos Theory" recipe: Invite favorite artists and friends to show works, then throw a fun party filled with cool people and good vibes (live music and fashion were also part of this year’s mix). One thing grows clearer with each passing year. Slack isn’t likely to deviate from this approach. It’s a pity, really. Because comfort food is nice, but "Chaos Theory" needs more spice.

"Chaos Theory" is the closest thing metro Phoenix has to an annual "best of" art showcase. Some of the region's best artists participate. It draws big crowds, including members of Contemporary Forum, a Phoenix Art Museum support organization that gives awards and grants to select local artists (they got a private "Chaos Theory" showing on Saturday, October 3). People may return year after year for another taste of familiar fare, but Slack has the power to help metro Phoenix audiences cultivate a more diverse and expansive aesthetic palette. And frankly, that sounds pretty fun, too. 

Most of "Chaos Theory" 16 will be reinstalled for upcoming Downtown Chamber Music Series concerts at Legend City Studios. Dates and ticket information will be posted on the Downtown Chamber Music Series website once they are announced. 
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble