One evening in Mexico City many years ago, when Ricardo Olvera was a boy, 7 or 8 years old, he saw his father playing with a deck of cards. The cards had strange shapes and colors and depicted unusual characters. When Ricardo asked his father about the cards, his father replied, “These cards are only for grownups.”
The cards had already intrigued young Ricardo, and the taboo only added to the allure. They became mysterious.
Olvera is now an artist based in Reno. His exhibit The Bone Tarot will be on display at Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Nevada, Reno from June 29 to July 30. The exhibit consists of the major arcana of the traditional Tarot card deck, depicted as sculptural found object assemblages. The major arcana are the 22 trump cards of the Tarot deck, and each represents an archetype—for example, The Fool, The Magician, The Lovers, Justice, The Moon, The Sun and The World.
Each of Olvera’s assemblages consists of bones—like goat skulls, deer skulls and sheep skulls—and other materials—like rope, feathers and tree branches—arranged in reference to major arcana. Some are skeletal depictions of the common Tarot designs; others are more personal and idiosyncratic. Each assemblage is built atop a wall-mounted black rectangle, most of which are painted wooden boards. The rectangles recall the shapes of Tarot cards, though each is slightly different in size.
Olvera found some of the bones in local deserts. Others were gifts from friends, including a very generous paleontologist. He bought some of the skulls. It’s important to him that all the bones used in his artworks were categorized as “least concern” by the International Union of Nature and Natural Resources, and that no animals were harmed in the making of the exhibition.
The first piece Olvera created for the exhibition was the 15th card of the Tarot, “The Devil.” It features, unsurprisingly, a goat skull that seems to be drinking or bleeding a long gash of red acrylic paint. (Besides the painted black of the rectangle shapes, and the ivories and beiges of the bones, red is the only color in the exhibit, and it is used sparingly.)
As is often the case with good art, “The Devil” ignited the whole project. After completing that piece, Olvera conceived the whole show.
“The Hierophant,” called “The Pope” in some Tarot decks, is depicted as a wild boar skull with a tangle of vines tumbling out of its open jaw.
“I wanted the pope to be represented by a pig,” says Olvera. “I don’t know if he’s speaking, shouting, spreading a message, or vomiting. … The meaning of that card is to conform to society.”
Olvera says that his large, sculptural deck is not intended for divination.
“It’s an homage,” he says. “My interest is strictly aesthetic … though I respect divination.”
Visual art appreciation and divination share some common methods—both involve looking and interpreting.
“The Tarot is like a song that has no words,” says Olvera. “It’s open to interpretation. It can be like a channel, a tool for connecting consciousness to unconsciousness.”
Some tarot divination techniques are like meditations used to explore the nooks and crannies of the mind. It’s not necessarily the cards themselves, but the process of interpretation that invokes insight. This, again, is like an art experience. It’s subject to interpretation.
“Not many people have seen the exhibition yet,” said Olvera about a week before the opening. “But one man who has seen it was very into divination, and he said, ‘I got a great reading from your show.’”