Art Review: "Chaos Theory 17" at Legend City Studios in Downtown Phoenix | Phoenix New Times


Why Randy Slack's "Chaos Theory 17" Was So Beautifully Balanced

Now in its 17th year, the annual "Chaos Theory" exhibition at Legend City Studios brings together a significant number of Phoenix-area artists for a single-night exhibition that’s become a staple of the local arts scene. This year’s exhibition, held Friday, October 7, continued that tradition. It featured nearly 80 artists invited...
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Now in its 17th year, the annual "Chaos Theory" exhibition at Legend City Studios brings together a significant number of Phoenix-area artists for a single-night exhibition that’s become a staple of the local arts scene.

This year’s exhibition, held Friday, October 7, continued that tradition.

It featured nearly 80 artists invited to participate by Phoenix artist and "Chaos Theory" organizer Randy Slack, who co-created the show in 2000 with fellow members of the 3-Car Pile Up collective.

Some years it wows; other years it wobbles.

This time around, Slack delivered a beautifully balanced show that reflected the depth and breadth of the metro Phoenix arts scene.

"Chaos Theory 17" showcased works by emerging and established artists. It featured art in multiple media, from painting to projection. And it included several first-time participants.

Most importantly, there was a lot of great work in this year’s show.

William LeGoullon’s Torso, a large-scale photograph of a mannequin’s torso riddled with bullet holes then left in the desert by someone doing target practice, is visually arresting – and especially powerful because it channels contemporary discourse around issues of gun violence and women’s rights.

Christina Ramirez’s abstract painting Half-Life, featuring fluid lines and amorphous forms in variations on black and white, affirms the importance of strong technique coupled with a sophisticated understanding of art basics from line to color.

Henry Leo Schoebel’s Unhealable Wound surrounds an evocative central image with repeated designs that channel womblike protection, prompting reflection on assaults against both the environment and women’s bodies.

Several artists showed intriguing variations on their typical body of work for "Chaos Theory 17," which helped give this year’s show a fresh feel.

Annie Lopez, an early "Chaos Theory" participant along with husband and fellow artist Jeff Falk, has long created dresses using tamale wrapper paper and cyanotype photography to address Latino experiences with social injustice.

For "Chaos Theory 17," she created a small dress form with bold images of her own face (Mira No Mas) – setting it inside a small box with walls that reflected the pattern, leaving viewers to wonder about its meaning.

Bill Dambrova, an artist best-known for vibrant paintings that play with anatomical forms, showed a three-dimensional piece (Don’t Sleep, These Are Snakes). So did Carrie Marill (High : Low), whose pristine treatment of line and color typically happens on flat panels rather than geometric sculptural forms.

They’re the type of small shifts at the heart of the actual chaos theory, a mathematical approach emphasizing the potential for small changes to have a big impact, for which the exhibition was named.

Several artists pushed beyond works shown during previous "Chaos Theory" exhibitions, signaling the evolution of their art practice while making "Chaos Theory" more interesting this time around.

Last year, Alexandra Bowers’ wood burning piece featured a lone roadrunner. This year, she created an abstract work, Microcosmic Dandelion, by layering multiple images of dandelion heads. Instead of creating a conceptual installation using teddy bears, Tara Logsdon delivered bearrier, a riff on peace, love, joy, and banishing borders using simple graphics and a traffic sign motif.

"Chaos Theory 17" assembled a meaningful mix of works exploring either the desert landscape or the internal landscape of the heart, mind or soul. Lisa Olson’s Vastness reminded viewers that nature offers infinite possibilities for exploration beyond digital culture. Shauna Thibault’s Prickly Pear beautifully conveyed the fact that every body has a context.

Works expressing personal losses were especially powerful. Consider Loss of Hope, Greg Esser’s series of Polaroid photographs showing his mother’s hands, or A Personal Cosmology: Drowning in Disconnection, a painting Ashley Macias created after losing most of her work and supplies during a  studio fire earlier this year.

But the exhibition also highlights collective losses within the local arts community.

During recent months and years, several beloved murals and art spaces in downtown Phoenix have been lost to new development or redevelopment.

Luster Kaboom, whose mural at the former Trunk Space on Grand Avenue was painted over during building improvements, created a new drawing for "Chaos Theory" that couples a nostalgic longing for the past with a hopeful nod to the future.

Wayne Rainey’s large-scale photograph of actual demolition in the Roosevelt Row arts district is a defiant visual treatise on the perils of corporatizing art. And Colton Brock’s painting The March of Progress: William R. Norton House, 1895 is a quiet plea for Phoenix to enhance its historic preservation efforts.

Despite its many hits, "Chaos Theory 17" also had some misses.

Pieces by Judith Ann Miller (Aristotle’s Lantern), Jacob Meders (Ghost Arrow), Sarah Abbott (Come This Way), and Richard Kimbrough (She Flew Away with My Heart) lacked sophistication in concept and/or execution.

Miller's assemblage, coupling the likeness of a Precious Moments figurine with natural elements and a Monopoly card, resembled a simple craft project, while Abbott's mixed-media piece with a few swashes of pink paint, lips, and text failed to offer compelling narrative, color, or line. 

Meders' simple arrow design created using encaustic on wood looked like a basic carving left unfinished. For Kimbrough's mixed media piece imagining a dragonfly bursting from a lover's broken heart, the problem was rather rudimentary construction. 

And several artists – including Kristin Bauer, Steve Gompf, and Frank Gonzales – showed works bearing strong similarities to their previous "Chaos Theory" offerings. It’s not that their work isn’t good, but it would have been nice to see some element of surprise from these artists, even though they're known for creating work with a particular style and voice. 

Fortunately, more than 10 of this year’s participating artists were first-time participants. Several – such as Turner G. Davis, Daniel Funkhouser, and Kaori Takamura – are well-established artists. Others – such as Lisa Von Hoffner, Travis Ivey, and Travis Rice – are emerging artists.

Their works also contributed to the fresh feel of this year’s event.

Ivey’s Infrastructure of a Boom Town, (Phoenix, AZ), a collage made with security envelopes and glitter, which includes portions of the downtown Phoenix grid, was among the exhibition's best. It’s meticulously crafted, and lends an abstract sensibility to a very concrete subject: the shared community in which art, and life, happens.

For all its serious subject matter, "Chaos Theory 17" also delivered the sense of play at the heart of Slack’s style. It’s most evident in his own piece for the show, an installation titled # Myrtle, inspired by his own travels with family and friends.

Slack cut out and painted the likeness of his vintage VW van (named Myrtle), then placed it in front of a large wall painted with a Grand Canyon landscape, leaving room for gallery-goers to walk behind and pose for photos through open windows. On another window he replicated travel stickers from a window on the actual van.

Taken together, these elements made for a beautifully balanced show that offered a compelling window into the breadth and depth of a metro Phoenix arts scene in flux during a time when artists desperately need to be both challenged and affirmed.
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