This’ll leave a mark

A retrospective of artist Michael Sarich’s 30-year career examines symbols, passion and power

Photo By Todd Upton

Symbols help us make sense of our lives. They are used in distinct cultural contexts to convey sometimes complex and abstract meanings as simply and quickly as possible. An effective symbol is quickly interpreted by the viewer, the encoded information downloaded, decoded and translated by the reptilian cortex and then saved in memory for future use. The simple blue figure in the skirt is easily interpreted to mean that behind that door is a women’s bathroom. The one with the pants is for men. Certainly, an unsophisticated Highland Scot could confuse the former with something having to do with kilts. But he would learn, and pretty quickly, what those symbols represent.

So too, we learn that the double-helix represents the strands of DNA that contain the blueprint of life. A red octagon means we have to stop. A yellow light means to hurry up and blow through that intersection.

Eventually, the symbols can become cultural icons and encode a society’s values. The stars and stripes of the American flag. The McDonald’s arches. Naturally, symbols become symbols of symbols and lose their meaning entirely. People begin bringing their own experiences to the symbols, the pop world kidnaps and perverts them, the corporate world date-rapes them and turns them into servants of profit. What was once intended as a literal shorthand becomes as fluid as melting silk and takes on new and unintended meanings.

The art of Michael Sarich begins somewhere around here.

A mouse in the house of Sarich
“Our Lady of Guadalupe,” an aesthetically pleasing 16th century Roman Catholic icon, is believed to have been used to try to convert the Aztec people to Christianity with a local “miracle.” It was turned into a devout, secular symbol of Mexican national pride and revolution by Emiliano Zapata’s armies, who fought and died under her gaze as she adorned their flags. In modern times, the Nuestra Señora has been appropriated for countless numbers of unintended uses. It exists in the public domain and in the mass public consciousness. Now, the symbol allows the viewer its own interpretations and meanings. Sarich often uses this image. In his 2005 work “Stop Light,” the Virgin is used as a traffic device while the head that is perhaps Sarich’s most used symbol, a head with a likeness to a certain Disney mouse, floats in the upper left-hand corner of the painting.

“From what I understand,” says Sarich with a smirk. “I’m using ‘Steamboat Willie.’ That’s the older cartoon, the one in the public domain.”

For Sarich, as it was for the late French philosopher and social commentator Jean Baudrillard, The Mouse, and Disney itself is perhaps the personifying image of what Sarich calls the “duality of information.”

The fakeness in the real and the real in the fake. And a copy of that. To that end, Sarich almost exclusively uses acrylic paint these days: “There’s something about [the paint] being plastic that goes with the imagery.”

“I don’t think Walt Disney is evil,” says the 19-year associate professor of art at the University of Nevada, Reno. And he’s yet to be approached by the notably litigious and protective corporate home of The Mouse. “I’ve never heard from them. I might, now that I’m getting more attention.”

“Of course, I’m not doing it in a malicious way, I’m doing it in a questioning way,” he says. “Except for a couple pieces when Mickey got real fat—obese—when he was 400 pounds with big man tits and a skinny little tail,” he says with a laugh.

“Our Lady of Guadalupe” is a recurring symbol in Sarich’s work.

Photo By Todd Upton

Sarich also says people can miss the meaning of a piece trying to decipher arcane symbols where there are none.

“Picasso had blood transfusions to keep his dick hard,” Sarich says, a smile coming to his face. “I was at a show in Chicago, the whole room is wallpapered with Picasso’s drawings of people fucking. Of course, all the salon people, the genteel gallery types are all asking, ‘What do you suppose this is about? It’s like they were looking right through the stuff. I laughed and said, “It’s about fucking.”

His voice sounds a bit strained, and his hands shake, but neither in a distracting way. He’s comfortable with himself and enjoying life.

Imagine that
This is what Sarich does: He goes into our cultural registry and shifts things around, creating iconic syncretisms, rich mélanges made up of the collision of symbols to engage in a dialogue with the viewer. Narrative collages. The symbols in his painting lexicon are ghostly watermarks of their intended meanings, now more or less denuded and disconnected from their original intent. A big Wal-Mart-style yellow smiley face. A fish. Birds. Tattoo flash of women who never existed. Skulls. Propellers. And the more aesthetically pleasing his work gets, the bigger the grin on the metaphorical cat who just swallowed the canary.

“I do think Wal-Mart consumes neighborhoods,” he says. “When I go back home to Chicago and see streets like Division and State streets, which always had a lot of characters on the edge of down and out and were real interesting, now …” he shakes his head to eliminate the thought.

“All the imagery I use has my own meaning [as well], like the striped bass. I go to the East Coast and fish for striped bass once or twice a year. I used to build homes for the rich and shameless on Martha’s Vineyard and up in Maine. It was nice being out there in the wintertime because it’s quiet. Now, I’ll take a bucket, a six-pack of beer and a book and go for the day. Nothing too serious. This is vacation. Time to unwind and relax. When I’m fishing, it’s kind of a meditative thing for me because I’m always thinking about the next painting or next sculpture. But not out there.”

That’s some 150 pieces a year he says he finishes these days.

The 52-year-old says that he thinks he’s finally begun to hit his stride over the past few years. The Parkinson’s disease he has been battling for a few years has caused him to have to work a little slower, he says, but he freely admits that he’s making the best stuff of his career. “That’s not to say that it’s going to end anytime soon,” he says.

Recently, Sarich says, he’s been going over old work and touching it up now that he considers himself “more informed.”

The art of art
“Artists would be a lot better off if they’d get out of their own way,” says Sarich, describing his method of work. After thinking of the basics of composition, such as how to break up the negative space, Sarich says he lets the painting take control of him. “You don’t control it. That’s a really important aspect of creating anything—having the discipline to let the work control you, and realizing you don’t control the work.

“Let the work discover itself, and it naturally takes over.”

“Yellow Bird” may call to mind the classic calypso song, but we’d be lying if we said we knew how Pinocchio fits in there.

Photo By Todd Upton

He does the same no matter the medium. “Sculpture, ceramics … I just look at it as another surface to make marks on.”

“When the work’s doing it, taking over me, I’m just there facilitating it. It usually takes me about two hours until I get in that frame of mind and can take myself out of the picture.” Once in the zone, “I look at the clock, and five hours has gone by, like I wasn’t even there.”

After a cigarette break, he comes back and looks at the piece with fresh eyes.

“You’ve got to come back with critical judgment. You’ve got to be real honest with yourself.”

It’s similar, he says, to the way he teaches his students.

“I get them in the car and put their hands on the steering wheel. How they want to drive the car is up to them. I put them in the driver’s seat and let them drive.”

“He’s multi-discipline, not just as a painter who works with ceramics but in his approach to painting and teaching,” says 29-year-old graduate student Ahren Hertel. “He’s built up this vocabulary over the years, and it’s so interesting to see how he uses it.”

Hertel, who is collaborating with Sarich in the museum’s interactive Discovery Center, is already a successful artist in his own right, selling his work out of a gallery in Los Angeles. “I’ve been influenced by his dedication and his work ethic and really the way he approaches his work in general,” says Hertel, who describes himself as somewhere in between student and colleague of Sarich’s. “I’m not at his level yet,” he laughs. “[He’s] more of a mentor, sort of. A friend. We go out for beers every once in a while.”

“There’s a big bullshit factor in art,” says Sarich. “You’ve got to ask what you are trying to do with a piece. I ask my students what they’re trying to do. Make them dissect it. Ask questions. The bullshit will usually leak out there. Of course, sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing.

“Mike is constructive in his criticism,” says Hertel. “He’s really good at being able to approach it from a lot of different angles—which makes him unique. He’s really good at posing questions that you could go on for hours trying to answer.”

“I don’t think a piece of art should be brought to a conclusion,” says Sarich. “You want to leave it questioning and able to have a dialogue with the viewer.

“I try to learn something new with every painting,” says Sarich. “It might seem minimal to the viewer, but it’s big to me.”

Photo By Todd Upton

“I try to learn something new with every painting. It might seem minimal to the viewer, but it’s big to me. I don’t know if it’s a problem that I solve, but I set it up. Moving space, reinventing what I want to say. Gaining a new weapon. A new mark with every new piece.

“I get a kick out of watching people,” he says of his teaching career. “It’s so interesting to see how people perceive their own worlds and then watching them progress over not a semester, but over a year. The hardest thing is discovering their voice, the learning to find their voice, learning to be dumb before you can be smart. You’ve got to be dumb before you can be smart.”

Just another show
What’s it like to have 30 years of your work on display? Is it climatic or just the beginning?

“It’s just another show,” he says, looking down at the tattoos on his hands. He’s in a room surrounded by the in-progress works of some of his students. His influence can be seen heavily in some, barely in others. His office is peopled with dozens of mouse-eared, nonfunctional ceramics on the floor, some with branch-like mini-mouse heads growing out of the sides and a large totem-like mouse head on top. Like something out of Annette Funicello’s therapy notes. Other than that, it’s busy. Maybe even cluttered. But not messy.

“But … it’s also … I’ve had to look at the history of what I’ve done. From the autobiographical no-holds-barred, in-your-face stuff [of the beginning of his career]. Some of that stuff is kind of hard to look at. Just bringing back memories of when things weren’t so good.”

Before the success. Before he married the love of his life, Valerie. Back when Sarich worked like a factotum at dozens of mindless jobs.

The room, though buzzing with florescent lights, seems extremely quiet considering the shouts and violent smears of color everywhere. The table is covered with layers of drips, slashes, spills and flashy little doodles. The linoleum is covered with bright stains and the stains of products used to try to get them out. The room reeks of color. With eyes shut, the color is almost audible.

“I’m nervous,” he says, finally. “Absolutely. I hate my own shows. When I was young, I’d get shit-faced, but now I don’t drink. Well, hardly drink. I’ll have maybe one beer. My family’s coming from Chicago. I’ve got people coming from Germany, New York, Tennessee. All these people are coming in to celebrate with me, but I don’t know if I’ll have time to spend with them all.”

“My brothers and sisters are coming,” he says. “They don’t know what I do. I mean, they know I’ve always been an artist, but they haven’t followed my career too closely.

“I was talking to my brother on the phone, and he said, ‘I’m not going to have to sit there while people talk about what a great fucking guy you are, am I?'” laughs Sarich.

“I told him, ‘Probably.'”

Sarich’s office is peopled with dozens of mouse-eared, non-functional ceramics.

Photo By Todd Upton

Sarich is the second oldest in an Irish-Catholic family of three boys and three girls.

“My dad would never let us admit we were Irish. He said ‘If anybody asks, you’re Croatian kids.’

“They were all good artists, but none of them pursued it.”

Coming from such a big family helped inspire Sarich to take up art.

“Art was the only thing I found that was mine,” he says. “Growing up in a small, three-bedroom house with eight people in it, I escaped with art. I was always the guy that was drawing in class and getting in trouble. My dad said he went to school more than I ever did.”

He surveys the room, but it’s obvious he’s looking just as hard internally.

“It’s going to be emotional. Draining. I don’t know how I’ll react,” he says.

“I’m excited,” says Hertel. “I’m really interested in meeting Mike’s art friends. I’m sure it will be a huge crowd.”

“Nobody does it alone,” says Sarich, who notes that he’s been working closely with the museum for over a year to help them put the show together. “They’ve gone a great job, Ann and Miriam,” referring to curator Ann Wolfe and curatorial assistant Miriam Stanton.

“So many people have helped me through the years; I can’t even mention them all. I’ve had a lot of help. The art world is too callous to do it yourself anymore.”

“When you’re young, you can afford to place a lot of importance on things you have no control over,” he says reflectively. “I think everybody takes themselves way too seriously. I’m pretty good at laughing at myself. I’ve done enough stupid things for two lifetimes.

“You can see when somebody’s full of shit. Some people don’t want to go beyond themselves. A lot of people would have to take that next step along the path, they want to stay in that comfort zone. I don’t know how I’m going to react that night [of the opening]. It’s gonna be very emotional for me. To see all my friends, to see all the work up, going to be an emotional day.”

After its run at the NMA, the collection will go on the road. “It’s headed to Montana after it’s showing here, and there are a couple of other places that want it, a scaled-down version of it, anyhow,” says Sarich.

He checks the round classroom-style clock on the wall and reaches into his pocket for a pill. He sips a bit of the bottle of water in front of him and swallows.

As for the future?

“The art scene is wide-open,” he says. “Narrative work is coming back. I think that’s very positive. Outsider art has always had a big influence on me. I liked the rawness … Henry Darger. He was a sick fuck.”