Icon artist

Michael Sarich

New sculptures by Michael Sarich at the Stremmel Gallery.

New sculptures by Michael Sarich at the Stremmel Gallery.

Photo by AMY BECK

Michael Sarich’s exhibition is on display at the Stremmel Gallery, 1400 S. Virginia St., 786-0558, through Dec. 31. For more information, visit www.stremmelgallery.com.

If you were told to make a picture involving a fish, a boat prop, and a beach ball, how many ways could you fit them together? What if we threw in a happy face, Mickey Mouse, and the Virgin of Guadalupe? Add to that a porcupine, a few skulls, some cats, no-legged birds, and a devil girl tattoo, and you’ll find yourself in the iconographic realm of Verdi-based artist, Michael Sarich.

Sarich rose to prominence in the Northern Nevada art community after he moved here to become a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno in 1989, and was honored with a career retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2008. Now Stremmel Gallery, which has long represented the artist, presents what owner Turkey Stremmel describes as a “slight retrospective” which includes some of the artist’s latest work.

There’s no preferred medium in this group, and no preferred size either. Small works on paper give way to moderately sized ceramics and large woodblock prints, which are in turn overwhelmed by six-foot stretches of canvas sharing the space with boxy, dangling figures that Stremmel calls “puppets.” Pigments are applied to all manner of surfaces with brushes, stamps, and in sprays. Drawing is a constant consideration, whether it is jaggedly scrawled with a dull pencil into the tiny corner of a painting or scratched around the circumference of an already-glazed oblong that sports Mickey Mouse ears.

The way Sarich fits together the aforementioned imagery doesn’t so much have the feel of arranging and rearranging, but rather that of a stream of consciousness, one in which the elements of a very personal iconography are laid down, repeated, overlaid, interrupted, and transformed into one another with a pace that makes it hard to keep up. The frenetic march is readable at times, and indecipherable at others, a chaotic, painful, playful romp through the artist’s past, present, future and … who knows?

“Personal” should not be misconstrued as unapproachable, however. Sarich’s amalgam of art brut and pop, with all its flurry of activity in any given piece, provides more than enough to occupy one’s attention.

A few of the works in this show take on a political tone, particularly where the military is concerned. One of Sarich’s puppets is plastered ad absurdum with tiny decals of the U.S. armed forces, and its belly filled with plastic models of warplanes and tanks. The piece is topped with some of Sarich’s ubiquitous church towers, making it hard to miss the message of our national church of militarization.

For the most part, though, things aren’t so clear cut, and you’ll be left to wade on your own through the finches and boats and planes and storm clouds. Consider how creepy Disney’s mouse can become when suffering from stigmata, or constantly surrounded by memento mori. Notice all the subtle changes that yellow, smiling face can undergo without fundamentally altering its placid expression. And you might be surprised to find how the shape of one object, seen just a moment ago, has suddenly transformed into the shape of another, quite distinct, but strangely now inseparable image, drawn from the artist’s lexicon—indeed, from the artist’s life.

“I have to say he’s very autobiographical,” says Stremmel. “One time he said to me, ‘When birds fly, if they didn’t have feet, how would they land?’”

It’s just one odd, poignant question you might find yourself considering as you peruse these galleries.