Visual Arts

No Big Bang, A Big Gong

In astrophysics parlance, the term "chaos theory" refers to the hypothesis that even a simple system can manifest unpredictable and highly complicated behavior. In other words, even the tiniest uncertainty in initial conditions within a system can have far-ranging, sometimes unforeseeable effects down the line. The flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil, for example, hypothetically can end up a hurricane-force wind in China, according to the "butterfly effect" of chaos.

Why the latest group exhibition at 3CarPileUp, a relatively new gallery ensconced in downtown Phoenix's San Carlos Hotel, has been dubbed "Chaos Theory" is anyone's guess. Contrary to the concept of chaos (which more and more is being applied to social and political systems outside the realm of mathematics and physics), the artwork in this show is highly predictable and something less than complex. It barely registers a breeze across town, much less China.

The only thing truly chaotic about "Chaos Theory" -- which includes eminently forgettable work by three artists who own the gallery, as well as members of the now-defunct downtown artists' co-op, ARTlab 16 -- was its opening on September 1. A muddled hodgepodge of visual art thrown together with performance pieces and live music played by Eleven :05 on the sidewalk outside the gallery, this kickoff was a clear reminder of why I usually don't attend openings.

In retrospect, it was also a reminder of why I think the end of art may have arrived, just as philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto so presciently prognosticated a number of years ago in his seminal essay, The End of Art.

Inside the gallery proper, viewers at the PileUp opening had to jockey for position to see the paintings and mixed-media pieces hanging cheek by jowl on the walls. While straining to get an unobstructed line of sight, they were alternately harangued and bored by performance artist and ex-ARTlab 16 member Jeff Falk, who had set up sound equipment and a microphone at one end of the gallery.

Falk kicked off the evening, dressed in a suit and pig's head, by "pig-synching" to a recorded Andrea Bocelli song. This pointless charade was followed by an equally irritating recording of electronic bleating and beeping, ending in the grating saw of chirping cicadas and a garbled, stream-of-consciousness word-and-concept-association mantra that Falk, ironically, read from a prepared list. Apparently, the artist hasn't heard that the well-worn shtick he attempted to foist on captive gallerygoers is now staple patter for radio commercials -- and about as intellectually stimulating. So much for focusing on the artwork.

Halfway through the evening, video shorts were projected on a high wall of the now impossibly cramped quarters. Showing these videos in the middle of a noisy gallery packed with standing patrons at a jammed opening with loud live music a mere 20 feet away did an injustice not only to the people who actually wanted to see artwork (not to mention the potentially claustrophobic), but also to several videos being screened that had some merit to them.

Two video shorts by Sharri Weinberg, onetime student of Valley video artist Steve Gompf, were done dirty. Better suited for showing at a short-film festival, Weinberg's moody black-and-white pieces, some of which have already been shown in Europe, included In the Light of Day, a dreamlike cinematic scenario deftly exploring sexual identity. Redemptia focused on the anxious twilight between wakefulness and sleep induced by trance; its theme seemed to be that not all meditation is transcendental.

Capping off the evening's video segment was what seemed an interminable film (it actually only ran 8 1/2 minutes) of yet another Jeff Falk performance piece, titled Children's Crusade. The "short" was made using artist project funds from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Maricopa Institute for Arts and Entertainment Technology.

Shot in black and white by Steve Gompf with a $39.99 low-tech video camera made for kids, and edited by Weinberg on very high-tech AVID equipment, Crusade is visually pretty commanding. However, Falk's amateurish voice-over amounts to mere mental meandering bordering on the dull-witted. Falk mercilessly subjects the viewer to his banal ruminations about creating his own personal cosmology, falling off monkey bars as a kid, sustaining a concussion, hearing voices like some kid in the 12th-century Children's Crusade and seeing a dead kid on a gurney who had been dragged through cactus by a horse at a dude ranch -- all this paired visually with overly obvious symbols like death heads. But, conceptually, what can you expect from a piece that begins with "When I was a child, I thought as a child. What a surprise . . ."?

After its opening, what will be left on display for the run of the exhibition is artwork that seems to be rather inartfully recycled or derived from all too quickly identifiable sources. Annie Lopez's two silk-screened prints (at least I think they're silk-screens -- no one bothered to list the type of medium of any of the show's work on the wall texts) are a tip of the hat to Barbara Kruger's usually mordant text-and-image pieces. Lopez's When My People Rule, a print that features the admonition "We'll treat you like crap," displays none of the wry twist of Kruger and continues ad nauseam the well-worn theme of the enraged Latina, a theme Lopez long ago pounded to a pulp.

The Irrational Behavior of Incomplete Strangers, a large, medieval-looking photo printed on wood by Casey McGee, features a nude woman with a rather elegant watermelon (or maybe it's a very large olive sans pimiento) perched on her head. It's straight out of Joel-Peter Witkin, with a bit of Archimboldo and Hieronymous Bosch thrown in for good measure -- minus the demented edge of any of these artists. And Glenn Allen's Gift of Materialization, a board-game-like painting rendered in the style of a '30s cartoon of an insect fiddling over a patchwork alien with a gaping chest wound, is a combo of Larry Pittman and Kenny Scharf.

If you like James Rosenquist and David Salle, then you're bound to like James Angel's Coming Soon, a stylistic rip-off of both that mixes images of a strip of stars, a man's belted waist and the words "puffed wheat" with a bowl of the stuff ascending from the edge of the canvas. Like Ed Ruscha? Then you'll definitely want to take a peek at Ed Kennefick's Branches, which, while nicely executed, is still not much of a departure from paintings Ruscha was doing in the mid-'70s and '80s. Ah, the infinity of repetition.

Even Brent Bond, whose long-term métier has been attacking the defects, theological and otherwise, of organized religion, seems to be straining in Bank. A well-crafted assemblage that's a bit too simplistic, this wall piece joins a see-through tube of pennies, backlit by an obligatory green neon tube and topped with a lit-up plastic Immaculate Heart of Mary crowned with a neon dollar sign, with a tube of communion wafers backlit by a red neon tube and topped with a lit-up plastic Sacred Heart of Jesus crowned with a cross. Beneath the two is a "savings" box in which pennies and hosts sacrilegiously commingle.

Arthur Danto long ago predicted that art would fail to progress past a certain point, that the history of art basically ended after the advent of Pop Art in the '60s -- an acknowledgment in philosophical terms that there's nothing new under the sun. Yes, art will continue to be made and filmed and performed, albeit with shiny new technological advances or old techniques used in different ways. But because of its consciousness of itself, art for Danto crystallizes into philosophy and essentially comes to an end. The rehashing of art history, amply demonstrated in much of the work in "Chaos Theory," forcefully proves Danto's point. The artwork in this show is highly predictable and something less than complex.

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Kathleen Vanesian