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Gallery Visit — Chaos Theory exhibition

While Tucson has its Arizona Biennial, Phoenix has Chaos Theory. Fourteen years ago, Randy Slack brought together some very talented artist friends to exhibit their work at his Legend City Studios. From that small party for friends, Chaos Theory has become THE art event that represents the state of contemporary art in the Valley.

Randy Slack is lucky to know some of the most interesting mid-career and emerging artists in the Phoenix area. Each year he invites them to submit work, often sight unseen, trusting these artists to show pieces that will come together as a serious exhibition. Sure. With this casual approach sometimes the quality of the work is inconsistent, but this annual exhibition often gets criticism for what it is not. Slack does Phoenix a great service by bringing together a disparate group of artists that we might never have seen exhibited at the same venue if it were not for this annual event.

Phoenix-based artists, Kate Timmerman (kt) and Christopher Jagmin (cj) spent a Saturday afternoon at the gallery to take a look at this Valley “institution”.  With the luxury of being (mostly) alone in the gallery, the two took their time to look at the pieces displayed several times over. The following is an email discussion that took place after attending the exhibit.

cj: Since I had just seen a lovely show of Danielle Hacche’s work at the eye lounge contemporary art space (curated by Julia Bruck and Becky Nahom), I was excited to see more from her. While not large, the piece #10 In Coalescing Form and Focus (acrylic, micro pen, gauche, pencil on paper) was a stand out. The graphic designer in me appreciates her seemingly simple, but beautiful composition and her spot-on color sensibility. She seems to respect a graphic design history by channeling Charles and Ray Eames, Navajo rug designs, with a little Alexander Calder for good measure.

kt: I like your Calder reference. I did not think of that until you pointed it out. This work made me feel elevated and ready to take flight. The symmetrical concoction is futuristic with an architectural vibe. The thoughtful palette plays with the feeling of movement, waiting and hovering all at once. The traces of lead pencil added a voice to the work and kept it from feeling precious and overdone.

cj: Oh, I agree, Kate. If those pencil marks weren’t there, you might think that the piece was done on computer. They are pretty perfectly made. I do like that the lines make the viewer look a bit more.

It might have been nice to have this work on paper near Pete Deise’s piece Tethering the Storm Within (no weld, fire tied, triple powder coated steel). Even though Deise’s work is more frenetic, and full of “white” energy, these two would work nicely as a pair.

kt:  Yes, Chris that is the challenge of laying out a group show while accommodating space restrictions. It is one of the toughest jobs for a curator to pull all the styles into a cohesive exhibition.

Pete Deise’s tangled web of steel is a marvel. The stretched, taut steel is bent and woven into a composition that conveys tremendous tension and energy. The pristine white powder coated paint belies the technical skill required to create this steel sculpture without any welds. I would love to see it hanging in a huge atrium lit by sunlight.

cj: If it was hanging it might appear lighter too, and I would love to have a look at it from below. If there was more light coming through the piece, it would really be spectacular.

Carrie Marill, Transplant

I am noticing a graphic vibe coming through the works that we both like, and see it again in Carrie Marill’s work, Transplant (acrylic on linen, 2012). The simplified silhouetted grackles surround a saguaro underneath almost bitmapped clouds.

kt: If you have lived in Phoenix long enough you have driven by scenes of gigantic saguaro’s recently transplanted and supported by scaffolding. Marill, a transplant herself from the watery regions of the Bay area and Seattle connected to the question… who is happy in their new homes? A robin’s–egg-blue sky surrounds the unpainted linen shape of the saguaro cactus with a cacophony of construction zone colored boards that support the transplant.

At the base of the cactus, the black and white geometric shapes seem to reflect the visual language of Navajo pictorial weavings that describe everyday life in the southwest. This work is part of a cohesive series that is an accumulation of ideas and experiences gleaned from the artist settling in the Sonoran desert.

And you are right Chris about the clouds…they were inspired by the Mario Brothers video game!

cj: I have loved going to this exhibit with you, Kate, as you have pointed out different perspectives for me to consider.

If we are keeping with the graphic thread here at this exhibit, I wanted to mention Bear the Light by Tara Logsdon/Die Bearmy, mixed media. It appears as an almost friendly night light, but when you pointed out the (almost hidden) swastika, a royal crown, a Star of David, along with other symbol, the work became more interesting. What might be a safe reassuring friendly bear, now becomes a little more complicated, and it makes the piece less safe, and more compelling.

kt: You got me to take a second look at this work and thank you for that. I was very curious about the symbolism and the construction of the work. I did feel it was quite ominous.

cj: Time Dilation by James Angel (unknown medium) is another piece that I cannot forget to mention as it works very well with the works discussed so far. The mixture of black and white photo realistic painting combined with blocks of geometric shaped color images alludes to a time in the U.S. when the future looked bright, and the U.S. was on top of its game. I am not sure if Angel had any political commentary in mind, but I enjoy that this work doesn’t lay out it’s meaning so overtly, and there are maybe more stories to discover.

kt: I have been watching James Angel’s work for over ten years and his imagination never fails to surprise me. I felt a similar wave of nostalgia for a simpler time while experiencing this piece. Disneyland and images of the moon landing will do that. The irony of course is it was a simpler time if you were white, straight and middle class in the 1960’s when we landed on the moon.

cj: While Count Basie entertains the people able to afford this new leisure class.

kt: Let’s make a great leap in another direction… what did you think of Rick Toerne’s classic oil painting Supper at Kirk’s (oil on canvas)?

cj: It is interesting that as we roamed around the gallery we both kept returning to Toerne’s work.

kt: My first thought when I looked at this painting was of Caravaggio, the Italian Baroque master of tenebrism and chiaroscuro. Using these techniques, Toerne’s dramatic use of light and shadow lend solidity to the forms and give volume and depth to the scene. But the giveaway for me was the hand gesture of the figure on the left. His extended foreshortened hand and arm had to be an homage to Caravaggio’s Super at Emmaus (1601), where Christ makes the same gesture to his disciples.

Caravaggio, Super at Emmaus, oil on canvas, 141 x 196 cm, National Gallery, London

My next reaction was to the colors blue and red smoothly brushed on and glowing from thin oil glazes. The sacred significance of blue and red pigments in Medieval and Renaissance religious works is well known. I confess at this point I needed to solve the mystery of this work. I hoped I was not reading too much into the piece.

Rick Toerne, Supper at Kirk’s, at Chaos Theory

cj: That is so interesting. I see those references now, but when I saw this, I went somewhere else, and I thought of the Ashcan School. It has a gritty, every-man sensibility. The arm pads placed under the arm wrestlers hints that this event was a planned event, one that is taken seriously, and not just a playful, random game, so it seems that the stakes may be high, and there is an ominous tone to the work.

kt: Yes, the physical dynamic between the subjects was very powerful. I contacted the artist who confirmed the Caravaggio inspiration, but delighted me with the back story on the arm wrestlers. He wove the symbolism and techniques of 15th and 16th century artists with Star Trek as a theme. The red shirted guards that were usually killed off in the 1960s TV show are perhaps wrestling with a science officer. He also shared that the color was a nod to religious symbolism but also to politics. Too bad Caravaggio is not around to explain his work to me.

Wayne Rainey, I Know Things Now

Speaking of symbolism and mystery, I have to say Wayne Rainey’s photograph, I Know Things Now has been haunting me. He evokes the danger and fear enveloping the young Red Riding Hood in a dark alley of gnarled and twisting trees without resorting to the clichés of this well-known and cautionary tale. His choice of detail e.g. her digging her foot into the soil as though she wants to disappear or escape is much more powerful than having the wolf in disguise as grandma. Did you respond to this work?

cj: It is a photograph that got my attention. I love the light, or the subtlety and the absence of light, and Rainey’s subtle color sense shines through. But, I see this differently than you. I think the wolf in the foreground doesn’t stop the girl, but actually intrigues her, and I doubt that she will stop her journey ahead.

kt:  Now that is something I will think about.

cj: I wonder if that is a female vs. male way that we look at the world.

Like most artists in the area, I look forward to Randy Slack’s show next year and beyond. At the same time, I think it would be wonderful to see a local institution step up and curate a contemporary Phoenix exhibit, or work with Randy to bring the Chaos Theory exhibit to a larger public space. I’d love to see this show in Mesa, for instance.

kt: Mesa Center for the Arts would be a great site for a second showing of the exhibit. They have been very good to Arizona artists and making the exhibit convenient for East Valley residents is a thoughtful idea. I would also like to add that there were many more works that I responded to in the exhibition, and I send my congratulations to all the artists we were unable to mention.

cj: I agree. There is a lot of talent in the region, and not enough time to write with this article, so hopefully there will be more events like this around town before next year’s Chaos Theory.

“Chaos Theory 14”
Legend City Studios

521 W. Van Buren St.
Phoenix, AZ 85004

The Downtown Chamber series will have concerts at Legend City on November 16 & 17th. Contact them for more information. Chaos Theory closes November 18th.

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