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Old postcard of gamblers at a blackjack table


The manner in which Nevadans relate to gaming, one of the most pervasive aspects of their culture, can be complex. To some gaming is a hobby, a night of fun, or a glamorous lifestyle. To others, it’s an unhealthy obsession or even a sin.

For Nevadans who are surrounded by the political, economic, and social realities of gaming, it may be difficult to look with fresh eyes at some of the less-talked-about aspects of the culture. This can be the artist’s role—to penetrate the surface of the obvious and delve into underlying meanings and messages. The artist is free to work with visual puns, bizarre juxtapositions, and unimagined ideas; his or her take on things can lead the rest of us to no-holds-barred glimpses into what is really going on. Seeing the fusion of the visual arts and gaming through the artist’s eye is what defines the challenges and thrills of this show and, in a broader perspective, suits the explorations of modern and postmodern thinking as well.

Keno ticket

Chinese Lottery Comes to Nevada

Keno, a lottery-type game, originated in China and possibly arrived in the US with the Chinese railroad workers in the mid-nineteenth century. Chinese legends and lore link it to the Chinese general Cheung Leung who lived around 200 BCE and who created a lottery game to raise extra money for battles. Adapted over centuries, the game came to early America known as the Chinese Lottery. The 120 Chinese characters were soon replaced by western numerals and downsized to 80. In 1936, Warren Nelson, one of the founding fathers of the Cal Neva, opened the first keno game in the Reno Palace Club. He had first encountered it in Montana before the game was legal in Nevada.

The themes of gaming provide rich material for the artist to work with. Greed, compulsion, manipulation, luck, chance, and skill are widely associated with gaming, but are also part of the broader human condition. This irony is not lost to the artist. For those who look deeper, the symbolism and mythology of gaming with links to magic, the occult, ancient history, and classical art provide even deeper layers of meaning.

And then there are the sensory elements of color, form, movement, smell, sound, and touch ever present in the gaming environment. Visualize the simplest playing card, for example. Beyond the historical and mythical associations, cards are colorful and are interesting to touch, shuffle, handle, and deal. Look again at a keno ticket, especially a pre-computer-generated ticket, the almost calligraphic markings recalling the game’s Chinese origins. Smell the smoke, alcohol, perfume; hear the tinkle and tunes of the old slots before computerized sound rendered the music almost unbearably uninteresting and annoying; feel the soft felt of the gaming table; the hard metal of the one-armed bandit, the surfaces of dice and chips. Beyond the machines and tables, the world of games morphs into music, a cornucopia of food and drink, and showgirls, costumes, and glitter—more exotica to hear, taste, smell, and see as one falls through the rabbit hole into restaurants, bars, and showrooms.

Alice in Wonderland scene with cards

Walking through “The Art of Gaming +,” the viewer is invited to throw out morality-based opinions about either art or gaming, to bury ideological positions and social concerns, to abandon preconceptions, and to enjoy the explosion of imagery unleashed by the artists’ reactions to gaming, whether historical, contemporary, experience-based, metaphorical, or literal.