A game of chance, or a divination tool? The Mexican card game known as Lotería has a long colorful history, as a version of bingo that just needs a deck of cards, a board, and some chip pieces. For those who play, it’s a fun evening. But as folk art, it is even more fascinating. The deck of cards portrays characters like a magician, a beautiful lady, or a soldier. But like the tarot deck, it also has icons that are both quotidian and strange, filled with hidden meanings, for example, a melon, a ladder, a boot, or a flowerpot. And then there’s a devil, a mermaid, and a drunk guy “El Borracho” (many people’s favorite.) The history and the art of Lotería decks make up the small but very fun exhibit “Lotería! Mexico’s Game of Chance and Poetry” at Casa Dolores, through Sept. 27.
Casa Dolores, by the way, is a hidden treasure on Bath Street, an adobe from 1843 that is now functioning as a repository for founder Linda Cathcart’s collection of over 6,000 objects of Mexican folk art. Ms. Cathcart is usually on the premises too, available to chat, which makes it a very personal exhibition.
The show is divided into three parts, with the front entry a primer on the original cards designed by Don Clemente Jacques, based on an even older game. His 1887 designs have become iconic versions (much like the Rider-Waite tarot deck has become the standard). All cards since then are essentially riffs on his deck, although artists and designers love to stray far away from the iconography.
One deck on the wall — and these are all lovingly spaced out and framed — uses Mexican handicrafts themselves as the objects, from a metate (a stone for rolling tortillas) to a sombrero and a pinata. The colors are primary and vibrant.
Another deck takes the original icons and improves on the art, giving the sun a 1970s smiley face and turning the “hand” icon away from the viewing, with strange subtle differences everywhere.In one side room, updated, homemade, and artistic reinterpretations are on display. There’s a charming handmade version in colored pencil, drawn by a child’s (or childlike) hand. This reminds us that the game — because it does not need to be shuffled and therefore coated — can be made at home by anybody. Even the game chips — on display here, too — can be pieces of plastic or rocks or dry beans from the kitchen.
The influence on Mexican culture is depicted in a photograph of artist David Diaz, who tattooed seven of the cards on his shoulder to show his love of the game. Danny Meza, a Santa Barbara artist and muralist, displays two of his own watercolor-and-ink versions of the cards, a paint roller and a bike. (All descriptions of the art are bilingual, by the way.)
There’s also a skateboard covered with another modern interpretation of the cards, by Japanese artist Sadam Yoshizawa, a Hello Kitty version of the deck sold in Japan, and a dark and mysterious revisioning of the deck by Teresa Villegas.
For those who love cards and divination, folk art, games, and collecting, this tiny show has much to offer. It’s the meeting of high art and good old fun, along with the subconscious love of symbols that many cultures share, which makes this worth your time. Stop by and take a chance.
‘Lotería: Mexico’s Game of Chance and Poetry’
When: Noon-4 p.m. Tues.-Sat. through Sept. 27
Where: Casa Dolores, 1023 Bath Street
Information: 963-1032 or casadolores.org