Mouse speak

Mike Sarich doesn’t like to talk about his work, which is fine because it squeaks for itself

This piece has a cross etched into one ear and a swastika in the other.

This piece has a cross etched into one ear and a swastika in the other.

Photo By David Torch

Mike Sarich doesn’t like to say much about his art. I suppose it doesn’t matter, then, that I missed his artist lecture last week. According to a friend, Sarich was expressing his disdain for gratuitous banter at the same moment I was leaving my work—too late to make the commute to Nevada Arts Council in Carson City, where his exhibit is on display.

While driving through Washoe Valley the next day, I wondered what potential insights I might have missed from his talk and decided that a telephone interview would have to suffice. But, after perusing the opening lines of Sarich’s artist statement, I quickly abandoned the notion. The first sentence began, “I was once talking with a famous art critic who told me that artists would be a lot better off if they got out of their own way.” Only a little of what followed touched on (though never explicitly) his reasons for adapting popular iconography and product symbolism into his work.

Enter the gallery and a row of ceramic Mickey Mouse-eared figures stand at attention, spaced carefully apart. The cartoon character’s goofy form is instantly recognizable, and the immediate likeability in the rounded shape of this universally famous rodent is Sarich’s “visual ‘pop’ hook,” which catches the audience’s attention.

Upon closer inspection, the mousy forms aren’t quite as cute as one might like or remembers them to be. Other, smaller, but no less politically charged symbols—crosses, swastikas and smiley faces—are painted over the surfaces of the larger figures, making for a fractured and turbulent expression in the appearance of these otherwise seemingly calm characters.

Surprisingly, what grounds much of the work (aside from the weighty presence of the sculptures) is the attention to detail—careful and violent marks and grooves have been cut with precision into the glossy and glazed surfaces.

The other half of the show consists of ceramic “Skull Heads,” each with a different novelty plastered on its forehead. On one head, a cartoon steamship cruises across the rigid surface of bone; another skull sports a happy, yellow duck, and another a colorful beach ball. One piece even models a stylish Elvis haircut, with lamb chop sideburns to boot. And, as with the ballooning mouse figures, many of the skulls are crowned with the ubiquitous Mouseketeer cap.

All at once funny and sincere, Sarich’s works are oddly familiar. It is not too difficult to recognize many of the age-old artistic symbols present in the etches and paintings that grace the sculpture’s facades, representing such themes as religion and death. It’s also quite easy to identify his fresh presentation of consumer icons—maybe not quite as timeless, but certainly as clichéd.

Be it in a comic or antagonistic way, these skulls, mice and smiley faces can be interpreted as a result of the “gentrification,” as Sarich puts it, of their images across America and the rest of the world. His work speaks for itself.

The familiarity, ironically, lies in what becomes a conversational relationship between the viewer and the piece. By his inclusion of universally understood symbols, Sarich levels the playing ground. Every observer, having witnessed these icons time and time again, can relate to the work in a personal way. In other words, sharing the same vocabulary makes it easier for the person and the piece to have a mutual understanding.