Joan Arrizabalaga has been making ceramic wall sculptures of slot machines since the early 1960s, but this is the first time she’s ever made one with six arms.
The piece came about as kind of a homework assignment. Arrizabalaga is not enrolled in any classes, though. She’s been a full-fledged member of the Reno art community for decades, making sculptures influenced by Nevada tropes such as gambling tables and slot machines.
The “homework assignment” was an invitation by University of Nevada, Reno galleries curator Paul Baker-Prindle.
“He asked me to pick out pieces from the permanent collection and have a response to them,” Arrizabalaga said. She spent about a day sifting through drawers and files, considering the approximately 5,000 pieces owned by UNR. She selected a few pieces to study, including a screen print of shiny, day-glo hundred dollar bills made by the Warhol studio and a couple of lithographs of architectural interiors by the late Jim McCormick, who was a long-time UNR professor and a friend. She also picked a drawing by an artist from Tucson named Kathryn Polk. It’s a paper-doll-like picture of a woman with six busy arms and a faded, red dress that looks like an anatomical drawing of the woman’s musculature.
At first, Arrizabalaga wasn’t sure what to make in response to these images, especially the six-armed woman.
“I got home with that and I thought, ’What on earth?’” she said. “I was going to take it back.”
Instead, she contemplated her selection for a while, then made a fresh body of work. Now, the pieces from the gallery’s collection and Arrizabalaga’s new works hang together in UNR’s Sheppard Gallery. Interior drawings of her own living room hang next to McCormick’s lithos. A large, fabric hundred dollar bill with intricate, black, lace-like edging hangs next to the Warhol piece, and the Shiva-inspired slot machine shares a wall with Polk’s drawing.
The new work has Arrizabalaga’s hallmark style—and also some new elements that she said she never would have thought of without the assignment.
This kind of experiment—asking artists to respond to work by other artists—is common in undergraduate art classrooms. It’s less common among professional artists, but it works wonderfully as an exhibitin premise. The show is a thoughtful, accessible assertion of the ongoing production of one community over time, and it presents something of a shared local canon.
And Arrizabalaga said she has fresh fodder for ideas that will likely last a while. She’s seriously considered making more multi-limbed machines or figures.
The “homework” experiment—which had been assigned twice before in recent months, to former gallery employee Austin Pratt and to husband-and-wife team Walt McNamara and Linda Yuroff—wasn’t just conducted on behalf of the artists, however. It was meant to engage the public, as well.
“Our philosophy is that we hold this collection in stewardship for all Nevadans,” said Baker-Prindle. “Right now, we’re thinking, ’How do we make this accessible?’” Part of the idea was to make the permanent art collection better known in the community, and the series of exhibits was timed to precede a new campus arts facility, slated to open in 2019.
“In the new building, the works-on-paper study room is available to high schoolers, scholars, regular old Nevadans, everybody,” Baker-Prindle said, for example.