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Bob Adams and Joan Arrizabalaga at their 1981 art exhibit at William Thornton’s Reno-Tahoe Gaming Academy.

Bob Adams and Joan Arrizabalaga at their 1981 art exhibit at William Thornton’s Reno-Tahoe Gaming Academy."

THE ART OF GAMING +

The “Art of Gaming +” pays homage to the original Art of Gaming exhibit and resurrects and expands the spirit and vision behind it. It offers a unique opportunity to see much of the original exhibit pieces from the Harrah’s Hampton Inn project as well as other creative efforts that enhance the idea of the art of gaming. The original pieces that were still in good enough shape to be rescued for this show were moved from Harrah’s warehouse to Stremmel Gallery for evaluation and reassembly before coming to the Knowledge Center. Curator Joan Arrizabalaga’s vast knowledge of the esthetics surrounding casino culture in Reno led to the addition of several other artists whose work complements that of the original Harrah’s group and captures the flavor of the original exhibit. Arrizabalaga also recommended broadening the look into casino culture with inclusion of collections of showgirl costumes and art, historic gaming devices such as slot machines, advertising and publicity pieces from the glorious past of Reno gaming, conceptual drawings from IGT, and neon signs.

Artist Hits the Jackpot

Chandelier

When Joan Arrizabalaga received her commission for the soft-sculpture jackpots she created for “The Art of Gaming,” she knew what to do with the payout. Joan, who had planned a trip to Venice following the exhibit, went to the Venetian Island of Murano, known since the 10th Century for its incomparable glass art, where she commissioned a chandelier. Suspended in her home in fumé-glass shades of mauve, green, and blue, it serves as an ongoing reminder of risks and rewards.

Artists Bob Adams and Mick Sheldon were not among the original artists commissioned for the Hampton Inn show, so their gaming-related paintings are collected here for the first time. Each gives life and new perspective to the theme. Mick Sheldon’s pieces for this show are pokes at contemporary life, often in the fast food lane, that incorporate gaming images—cards and dice. The merry mix of the surprise of the unexpected and the play and fun that emerge through his use of color, form and images make it easy to understand why his pieces strengthen the exhibit and suit the theme of the show.

Bob Adams’s canvases pull one into environments like stage sets. Although the details that pop up to complete his scenes are rendered with exquisite technique, it’s the big picture that dazzles us, the people and things in context. His gaming and street environments are both realistic and imaginative. Realism is achieved by meticulously putting the viewer “there,” whether “there” is on a Reno street or in a pool hall or by a river. The imaginative elements are rendered through a gorgeous and bountiful use of expressionist color.

The exhibit also features pieces of Curator Arrizabalaga’s art that were not on display in Harrah’s Hampton Inn.

The exhibit organizers were delighted with the discovery of many sources of material that came to their attention. For the 50th anniversary of the legalization of gambling in Nevada in 1931, Nevada Magazine featured and offered as a collector’s item a series of prints made from original art by Erni Cabat. These beautifully executed and lively portrayals of patrons playing various casino games—baccarat, craps, slots, roulette, poker, blackjack—are charming, sophisticated, and seductive. Terry Oliver loaned his collection of prints to this show.

Of course showgirls belong in “The Art of Gaming +.” The headdresses and g-strings with their feathers, sequins, and rhinestones evoke an era of beautiful women, over-the-top costumes, music, elaborate stage settings, and entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. Thanks to former dancer Karen Burns, who had the foresight and passion to preserve costumes used for the extravaganzas at the MGM Grand Hotel, we have showgirls, or at least what they wore, at the Knowledge Center. Designer Mistinguett has loaned her graphic art illustrations of costume designs and they are an especially complementary addition to the actual costumes. Her girls are lovely, sexy, leggy, glittery, and a little over-the-top, just like we imagine real showgirls to be.

JGeorge Moro dancers at the El Rancho, Las Vegas, 1949.

George Moro dancers at the El Rancho, Las Vegas, 1949.

An exhibit like this without the “real stuff” of gaming life would not be complete. Marshall Fey, owner of the former Liberty Belle Saloon, Steve Stremmel of Stremmel Auctions, and Joe McKenna have loaned historic, and in some cases extremely rare, slot machines, photos, drawings, and other ephemera to flesh out the context of the gaming world. These items lend tangible reality and substance to the imagined and represented world the artists depict. Don Spaulding’s photo collection brings a distinctly nostalgic note to those who remember and lament the passing of the era when big star names graced the casino billboards every night and glamour was what the downtown expected and got.

Will Durham loaned some pieces from his historic neon collection to remind us of what it was like to experience the neon-lit world of Reno in the mid-twentieth century. He invites us to re-evaluate the strange beauty and the simple, yet elegant, graphic designs of some of the neon signs that marked the casinos, restaurants, and hotels of old Reno and other Western towns.

Cowboy neon sign from the Mapes Hotel.

The decision to include the art of casino advertising and marketing opened up an entirely new avenue of exploration for this exhibit. Historically, casinos were designed on the whole to overwhelm and overload the senses, to put visitors into a trance-like state that keeps them from focusing on the individual elements that make up the environment. Some of those individual elements, however, have been carefully, creatively, and even lovingly designed. Promotional materials, ranging from the logos on playing chips and cocktail napkins to event invitations and glossy magazines, give us a new appreciation of the talent and vision required to create them. This exhibit separates items from their customary backgrounds and allows us to appreciate them as aesthetic products of gaming. In fact, understanding the intersection of art and gaming may be the easiest to grasp when one thinks of the application of imagination, color, and style—the tools of art—to the selling of gaming and casino life.

To add further dimension to the subject, IGT loaned the exhibition a collection of hand-drawings, sketches, and final color artwork done by various professional designers. The designers produced images that could be silk screened on the glass game fronts of video poker and slot machines. Silk screen printing requires a different screen for each color, and it wasn’t unusual to use 20 colors and 20 screens for a design. These designs mark an important stage of an enormous effort to make IGT machines attractive and fun to play.

It must be said that the works shown in both exhibits, the “Art of Gaming” and the “Art of Gaming +” keep a certain distance from the darkest and most sordid elements associated with gaming. It’s hard to find the pills and thrills, trash and stash world depicted in so many films and TV shows based on the casino experience. It’s difficult to find much allusion to crime, either, even though history tells us it was and is there. Sex in this art mostly manifests as sexiness. These pieces by and large exude whimsy. This frees the viewer from needing to dwell on the social guilt and historical remorse associated with the darker aspects of gaming and allows the viewer to have fun, to revel in nostalgia for the good of the good ole days, and be charmed and seduced by both the subject and the art inspired by it.

AHarold Smith Sr., Raymond I. (Pappy) Smith, and Harold Smith Jr. “A Smith Family Contest” 1967.

Harold Smith Sr., Raymond I. (Pappy) Smith, and Harold Smith Jr.
“A Smith Family Contest” 1967