Do you remember “Eat, Pray, Love,” the mid-aughts bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert? It was one of those rare books that became so popular you didn’t have to read it to understand what it was shorthand for — the ridiculous perils of white, privileged, middle-aged, divorced women. I did read it, though, and as a card-carrying member of each one of those identities, I mostly liked it and stand by its beautifully written scenes — including one that I still think about every time I visit a new city.
It’s a scene from the “eat” section of the author’s journey, where she has traveled to Italy and is talking to a friend about his theory that every city on the planet has its own defining word that occupies the thoughts of the majority of people who live in that city. In Rome, where she and her friend are meeting, the word is “sex.” They go on to speculate that New York’s word is “achieve” and LA’s is “succeed.”
Over the years, I have wondered about Reno’s word. At different times, I have been convinced that it is either “scrap” or “scrape.” And despite the citywide campaign to make “believe” happen, I just don’t buy it. It’s too squeaky and earnest as a standalone word. Believe who? Believe in what?
I bring this up because right now in City Hall, Joan Arrizabalaga has 18 gaming-related works on display in the Metro Gallery under the exhibition title, Fat Chance — which has to be one of our defining words. Whether the city of Reno is in on the artist’s ruse or not, Arrizabalaga has made it harder to accept the municipal invitation to “believe” without the “fat chance” implicit in that wager. Taken together, our city’s double word is like two sides of the same coin — a flipping coin, a pure potential. A gambling town suspended in a chronic condition of hope and cope.
In the gallery, this liminal state takes the form of Arrizabalaga’s celebrated raku-fired slot machines; familiar sewn-together faces of Kings, Queens, and Jokers playing their own card games; and trophy animal heads made of recycled casino materials. Each piece — with its gold embroidery and saturated casino colors — is both a dopamine hit and stand-in for one, giving us something shiny to look at while reflecting back to us our worst instincts and questionable tastes in a manner that feels familiar enough to mistake for nostalgia, adding trickery to trickery.
Among the slot machine wall pieces, the artist’s repetitive use of identical ceramic base-forms gives a premature sense of predictability that is quickly interrupted by shiny mirrors, natural objects, overlaid imagery, and text that differentiate each individual, non-functional machine.
In a piece titled “All That Glitters,” a flock of painted magpies gather on the crackled pastel surface of the slot machine, interacting with tiny mirrored circles and cherries as naturally as they would in the background of any old landscape painting. As one of Arrizabalaga’s many trickster references in the exhibition, the magpies play with the decorations rather than become one themselves — upsetting the usual order of human control.
The bird motif continues with “Angels,” a cream, matte-glazed slot machine that has a poem about prayer in the place of reels; white, ruffled bird feathers in the money bowl; and a painting of cherubic angels on the front face. The idea of control comes up again as symbols of divine intervention and bids for God’s favor muddy the already muddy boundaries separating faith and superstition. In the casino — and in life — we must suspend our disbelief that we don’t have a chance in heaven or do the sacraments so we don’t find ourselves in hell…isn’t a dead dove a symbol for good luck?
The animals in Arrizabalaga’s faux-taxidermy pieces are a departure from the chaotic slot machine birds. Like the trophy mounts you would find in a hunting lodge, the native goat, sheep, and boar heads stare stoically ahead, making no moves and giving no indication that they ever will. Unlike other trophy mounts, however, these Nevada animals are made of the same stuff as poker games — dice, cards, and table felt — blurring the lines between nature and culture while raising questions about the cost of betting against our wild spaces.
More than any other series in the exhibition, Arrizabalaga’s face-cards-playing-cards pieces highlight the tension between belief and disappointment, giving us theatrical vignettes into specific gambling moments and behavior.
“Dead Man’s Hand” opens on a climax scene. Two Kings, each dressed to the nines in their lucky symbols of choice (stars and horseshoes respectively), sit across from one another at a lushly upholstered game table. Both have perfect poker faces, but since the viewer is standing directly behind the horseshoe king, we can see that his pair of aces make him the dead man. That, and the fact that two knives have come out for him already, as well as a sash printed with telltale skulls. For some reason, a camel hangs out in the background, too. I would not put it past Arrizabalaga to insert a Virginia City reference.
In “Cocktails,” a circular scene of a poker game is underway as three impeccably embroidered men — a King and two Jacks — clutch their cards while gold, plastic coins pile up between them. A Joker does a poor job of hiding three aces below the men, and above the table, a Queen holds a cocktail with one hand while pointing to the sky with the other (possibly referencing a posture that Old Masters painted to direct the viewers’ attention up towards the Divine).
Renaissance themes and composition also inform Arrizabalaga’s most ambitious work in the show — a wall-sized tapestry titled “Giocco d’ Azzardo” (Game of Chance). Continuing with the face-card embroidery, deep-toned upholstery, and table felt that was explored in the artist’s smaller works, Arrizabalaga goes full Old Master on the textile as she creates a scene that is a vague composite of several Enlightenment-era frescos, complete with classical architecture and an expansive sky that draws the eye up towards Heaven, idealism, or maybe just a painted-cloud mural like the one at Caesar’s Palace.
For other details, Arrizabalaga goes her own way. Instead of depicting philosophers pursuing wisdom, she portrays her subjects pursuing pleasure. Face-card people play cards. Normies play music. Benjamin Franklin dances on stage with a pretty lady.
Everyone seems to be having a good time, despite the lack of wisdom — or maybe because of it. After all, that’s not our word here. Someone from the balcony throws a handful of shiny, gold coins above the dancing couple. They spin and spin. The coins and the couple, forever and ever in a state of belief and disbelief.
Joan Arrizabalaga’s solo exhibition Fat Chance is on view in the Metro Gallery in the lobby of Reno City Hall through April 14, with a reception from 5-7 pm on Thursday, March 30.
Photos: Josie Glassberg