Mad about the mouse

Michael Sarich

Michael Sarich, seen here at Stremmel Gallery, uses cultural icons to explore love-hate relationships, such as with <i>Stoplight Madonna </i>(left) and <i>Caught</i>.

Michael Sarich, seen here at Stremmel Gallery, uses cultural icons to explore love-hate relationships, such as with Stoplight Madonna (left) and Caught.

Photo By David Robert

The brush strokes come slowly for Michael Sarich these days.

That’s less a result of the Parkinson’s he was diagnosed with six years ago than the deliberate decision of a seasoned artist.

“The marks 25 years ago were very naive and very aggressive,” says Sarich, sitting in his studio at the University of Nevada, Reno among a half-dozen ceramic sculptures with large, vase-like bodies and colorful, Mickey Mouse-eared tops. “There wasn’t a slow mark in the bunch.” Now his internationally recognized work has a softer but stronger, more controlled tone.

Parkinson’s has slowed him down in other ways, however. He talks slower, walks slower. But since his diagnosis, Sarich’s art has been coming fast and focused. It’s widely regarded, by himself as well as by friends and critics, to be the best work he’s ever done.

This month, both Stremmel Gallery in Reno and Oats Park Arts Center in Fallon highlight Sarich’s art in two separate shows.

A Selectrospective at Oats Park spans 27 years of his work with roughly 60 pieces in its new North Wing gallery—Sarich’s biggest exhibit ever in Nevada. At Stremmel, about 40 of his works will share space with renowned ceramicist, Jun Kaneko.

After reviewing his artwork from the past quarter-century, Sarich, age 50, says it’s changed considerably. “It was so weird looking at those because they had so much anger,” he says. One such piece shows the large head of a man with bulging, discolored eyes, a flaming tongue and disheveled hair. Behind him, before a pink background, two smaller figures wave stretchy arms toward him. The tone is passionate, harried and definitely angry.

“I don’t want to downgrade it by saying it’s more social now, but it definitely has more visual hooks to get the viewer in,” says Sarich.

Those visual hooks are blatant cultural icons, each of which represents its own love-hate relationship. Each icon has crossed the line into pop culture, and, en route, has lost its identity. For example, the ubiquitous yellow and black smiley face imploring us to just be happy was created by a man who never reaped the cultural or financial rewards for having invented it. The revered Virgin of Guadalupe can be seen on cheesy bumper stickers. Mickey Mouse, once a symbol of childhood dreams and goodness, is now more a symbol of U.S. corporate greed. The popular rodent is rarely absent from Sarich’s pieces, though he takes different forms: There are happy Mickeys, sad Mickeys and even a fat, mean Mickey meant to represent what America has become.

“I said, ‘Why has this goddamned mouse gone all over the world, and why is there a fleet of lawyers behind it all the time?'” explains Sarich. “Something that becomes so monetarily powerful, I can’t look at it as this naïve, innocent figure. I’m not against Disney or Mickey. I just kind of question the globalization of an icon.”

Time, while not a cultural icon, is a recurring theme in conversation. Sarich says Parkinson’s, a disease fiendishly designed to slow the body down, has limited his time and therefore pushes him to focus and create. He quotes a line from a songwriter friend: “Wasting time’s my greatest crime.” He’s living that line now.

And yet, Sarich says Parkinson’s will never make him stop making art. He already has to steady his shaky right hand with his left one while he paints. This, he says, has actually allowed him to stumble upon some interesting new marks. But stop? “Never,” he says. “I’ll just keep changing. It’s the only thing I love.”