Even if Pamela Coleman “Pixie” Smith and A.E. Waite hadn’t designed the modern prototype of the Tarot deck in 1909, people would’ve still used cards to tell fortunes. It just wouldn’t have been as fun, or as illuminating, or as spooky. The Rider-Waite deck (which really ought to be called the Smith-Waite deck) concentrated mystical symbols and arcane references into illustrated plates barely larger than a modern playing card, and in so doing, made profound ripples in the collective unconscious. For over a century, it’s been the Tarot gold standard, inspiring thousands of spinoffs, inversions, and reinterpretations, and providing vagabonds, Boardwalk fortune tellers, and rogue futurists a powerful tool for introducing enthusiasts — and skeptics — to the occult.
That same spirit has descended on Deep Space Gallery (77 Cornelison Ave) for a five-artist show that amplifies the reverberations felt by those in proximity to the Tarot while staying true to its origins. “The Art of Divination” feels less like a trip to a fortune telling booth than it does a respectful, passionate, occasionally awestruck investigation of the deep roots and ancient symbols of Tarot, Zodiac, and other scrying systems. People have always been desperate to know what is coming around the bend. The Tarot is an accessible oracle; in the hands of an expressive artist, it can be a gorgeous thing to behold, too.
“The Art of Divination” includes a tableful of books on Tarot and Zodiac, and beautiful decks designed by artists in the show. Some of these, like the one created by Cheryl R. Riley, are purely intuitive, and tap into the imagination with rune-like shapes that correspond to varied emotional states. Others, like the symbol-studded stunner provided by Delilah Ray Miske, clearly take the Rider-Waite deck as their inspiration. Each deck shimmers with that weird, inexplicable power that Tarot radiates — power that has its roots in visual art and mythological literature as it has been relayed by mystics and storytellers across the centuries.
The Rider-Waite also exercises a full-moon tidal pull over the impeccably detailed work of Brooklyn artist Deming King Harriman, whose illustrations, like those of Pixie Smith, seem to exist out of time and allude to dozens of historical eras at once. Harriman has decorated the walls of Deep Space with a series of prints dedicated to each of the signs of the Zodiac — twenty-four total, two for each sign, male and female, captured in wordless dialogue. She’s also contributed a framed array of cards that strip the minor arcana of the Tarot of some of their common signification, and add strange patterns and odd suits of her own devising to their familiar design.
If you’re wondering whether Harriman can tell fortunes with a deck like that, or even with a more standard Tarot array, you can find out for yourself on Saturday (Feb. 18) at 6:00 P.M. The printmaker will be at Deep Space for the first of a series of events related to “The Art of Divination,” and visitors can check out the whole show, including the decks and books, the marvelously byzantine line drawings in ink by Erik Pyontek, and the cosmic-themed lunar calendars by Lewis Neef. The following afternoon (Feb. 19) at 3:00 P.M., Miske will be at Deep Space to talk Tarot with an earnest, bespectacled interlocutor who looks so much like Tris McCall that you might think you’re seeing things. He’s had a long history of run-ins and random fascinations with Tarot, and he’s got a few of his own personal stories to tell.
Then on Wednesday (Feb. 22), Harriman will bring her own observations and reflections on divination to a slightly less mystical location — Jersey City’s Downtown. She’ll be at &Co (201 Montgomery St.) for an event that Deep Space curators Jenna Geiger and Keith Van Pelt are calling “Ask the Oracle.” Rumor has it that I’ll be part of the fun that night, too. I’ll do my best to explain the basics of a Tarot deck and a little of the history behind the Smith-Waite partnership, and if a gypsy wind moves me, I might just demonstrate a Tarot spread. After all of that, you still might not be any clearer about your future. But it’s a safe bet you’ll have a better idea of why the signs and portents of Tarot have mesmerized so many across the decades.
Work at top “Aries” by Deming King Harriman