It’s been 20 years since Phoenix artist Randy Slack sat down with a sketchbook to put together a list of artists for the original “Chaos Theory” exhibit, which led to one of the city’s best-loved art traditions.
This year’s exhibition happens at Legend City Studios on First Friday, October 4. Slack bills it as a one-night-only affair, and says he’s invited 80 Phoenix-area artists to participate.
For years, it’s been one of the largest exhibitions to feature works by Arizona artists. It draws huge crowds, ranging from longtime staples of the Phoenix arts scene to the art-curious in search of a fun art party.
“Every year, we get people who’ve never been here,” Slack says. "It's about the people as much as the art."
Slack launched the first “Chaos Theory” with a handful of fellow artists, but he’s been the sole organizer for more than a decade now. Friends help him set things up, but he’s the driving force behind bringing all the artists together for one of the city’s largest group shows.
“That’s one reason we started the show,” Slack says. “It was the only time artists could see work by other artists.”
The exhibition is named for a principle in physics, which notes that even small changes can have big effects. Artists can’t apply to be included, so Slack puts together a list of artists to participate each year.
“If I notice people doing things in the community or I come across artists doing things that tickle my fancy, I invite them to be in the show,” Slack says. “There’s no real rhyme or reason to it.”
This year, artists are dropping their works off today, Wednesday, October 2. That means Randy and the artists who help him hang the show have to hustle to pull it all together by Friday night. He never knows what artists will bring, a fact that can be nerve-wracking.
"It's kind of scary, because I never know if it's all going to fit," he says.
The show has a consistent vibe every year, which has drawn both criticism and praise. "We've perfected it, so there's no reason to mess with it," he says.
Slack says he’s expecting participating artists to stretch this year, considering that it’s the exhibit’s 20-year anniversary. “A lot of people are trying to step it up,” he says.
Some of this year’s artists have been in the show since the beginning. And a few are first-timers. "Do what you do," he tells them. "That's why you're in the show."
Twenty years ago, Slack had to call artists on a landline phone, then play phone tag with artists to talk about show details. More recently, social media has simplified that process.
The local arts landscape has changed as well, he says.
“There weren’t as many places showing contemporary art when we started,” he says. “There are more artists now, and more opportunities.”
Still, the philosophy behind “Chaos Theory” has remained consistent.
“It’s all about art for art’s sake,” Slack says.
“Chaos Theory” regulars know to look for one of Slack’s own large-scale artworks on a particular wall inside Legend City Studios, located on the right side just past a small kitchenette.
One year, it was a painting that channeled an old Burt Reynolds centerfold. More recently, it was an idyllic picnic scene with British royalty gathered near a VW parked in an open field.
This year, Slack is unveiling a painting commissioned by True North Studio, a development firm with a big presence in Roosevelt Row. “It’s a pretty intense piece,” Slack says. “It’s pretty crazy, even for me.”
For Slack, the show is part art exhibit and part community experience. “It’s a lot like a high school reunion,” Slack says. “Half the fun is the crowd.”
Every year, people ask Slack whether the latest “Chaos Theory” exhibition might be the last.
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“For the last five years, I’ve told myself I’m not doing this anymore,” Slack says. “Then August rolls around, and I get psyched about putting the next show together.”
Turns out, he’s toying with the idea of doing similar one-night-only exhibits in other parts of the country, such as San Diego or Kansas City. They’d feature local artists, rather than Phoenix-area artists, and give Slack a chance to stretch his creative wings.
“It seems ridiculous, but I just love the high of doing it,” Slack says. “Putting on this kind of show is my art.”
"Chaos Theory" is scheduled on Friday, October 4, from 6 p.m. to midnight at Legend City Studios, 521 West Van Buren Street. The event is free.