After Mat Tomezsko moved from Mantua to Fishtown last summer, he couldn't stop thinking about his neon neighbor, SugarHouse Casino.
"I was struck by how alluring it would be for someone who lived here to believe in the promise."
The casino's seductive advertising insists "pure fun" awaits all who enter the gilded waterfront cage. "Philly loves a winner," we know from SugarHouse billboards, which suggest that only giddy hotties prowl this groovy gaming floor.
The more he obsessed about how a working-class urban community makes peace with a 24/7 casino on the corner, the more Tomezsko - a 2009 graduate of Temple University's Tyler School of Art - thought he had grist for his next exhibition.
First, the 25-year-old painter (http://tomezsko.blogspot.com/) needed to venture into a world he'd glimpsed only once before, at a bachelor party in Atlantic City.
"I'm not a gambler," he said. "I'm not a political artist."
His research consisted of one trip - around midnight on a Tuesday - to observe and photograph gamblers in action or contemplation.
Tomezsko did not seek the casino's approval. He did not probe his subjects. And he consciously decided against spending days or weeks at blackjack tables, lest he develop opinions that might skew the art.
"I photographed one guy so focused, he was hunched over a slot machine," he said. "He had this great glow across his face."
Was the man winning or losing? "Hard to tell. It's a drone state."
"Happier and Happier," Tomezsko's 12-piece exhibition, debuted Thursday night at the Crane Arts Building (www.cranearts.com) in a sliver of space for emerging artists.
Each painting appears on cheap found materials - plywood, an old mirror - to reflect the psychology of "making something seem better than it is." One graphic piece consists only of lines of red, black, green, silver, and gold, colors associated with luck and money.
At first glance, I'm struck that all the gamblers are middle-aged or elderly men wearing jackets, as if in such a rush to risk they couldn't be bothered to find the coat check.
"The thing about men is, they have this instinct to provide," Tomezsko explained. "The casino plays off that. You're working and struggling to feed your family, and here's this casino across the street saying, 'Come in, play for free and win!' They had one ad saying if you lose, they'd give you $100."
Painting #7 features a white-haired man in his 80s in profile against a backdrop of the casino's bus service, Sugar Express.
"He told me he lost $3,000 in one day and didn't remember it," the artist recalled. "He was totally astonished by what had happened."
The player in #6 wears a more hopeful expression standing in front of the candy-cane swirl logo of the Sugar Express. (The artist grew so fascinated with the idea of free hourly rides between South Philadelphia, Center City, and Fishtown, he may start hopping on instead of paying for SEPTA.)
The reflective "Happier and Happier" mirrored piece demands viewer participation.
"Instead of calling it happy hour, SugarHouse calls it happier hour," Tomezsko explained. "I thought that was so weird."
As we talk, I ask if anyone from the casino would see the exhibit.
"My big fear," he said, "is that they're going to show up tonight, buy it all, and smash it."
That didn't happen, but Tomezsko sold a $300 painting and cemented plans to expand the series with images of women, who seemed to be having more fun than men when he scouted SugarHouse last fall.
On that first and only visit, regulars showed Tomezsko a hot slot machine sure to deliver him a win.
"I played one game," he recalled. "I put $5 in, pressed some buttons, watched the lights blink. Then I didn't have $5 anymore."
Worse? The rookie didn't last long enough to score a free drink.