Mickey Mouse, the Wal-Mart Smiley Face, the Devil Girl Tattoo, Day of the Dead skulls and Virgin of Guadalupe are pop culture symbols that Michael Sarich uses in his imposing show of paintings, mixed media drawings and sculptures at JayJay.
Sarich, who teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, writes in a statement accompanying the show that he has a “love/hate” relationship with these cultural icons. Mickey is most often thought of as a cute little mouse, but in Sarich’s hands he often turns menacing.
“My Cup Runneth Over” is a ceramic bust with three Mickey Mouse heads, one of whose ears is incised with smiley faces, another with a Picasso-esque head seen simultaneously in full face and in profile. All three seem to be flying apart and the sculpture is worked over with markings that confirm Sarich’s commitment to drawing as a lynchpin of his art.
In “Head Pin,” another ceramic sculpture, Mickey takes the form of a bowling pin with a mouse head, the lower part of the pin incised with expressionistic markings of images of fish and a boat that relate to Sarich’s private love of fishing.
His paintings are impressively large and boldly colored in swathes of red, yellow and blue – primary colors – and black, on which he has placed his typical imagery. In “Butting Heads,” he gives us a skull and the Virgin bracketed between two giant fish. Smaller images are revealed as you move closer to the work: a cross, several Mickey Mouse heads, and again a boat.
The Devil Girl takes center stage in a number of the works. She is a winsome vixen both cute and sexy like Betty Boop. In “Change,” she dominates a red-orange canvas surrounded by the Virgin of Guadalupe and Minnie Mouse holding up an ice cream bar. In “Red-on-Orange, Orange-on-Red (Devil Girl)” her cheerful, cartoony face floats on a field of radiant red and orange in a work that Sarich describes as his homage to Mark Rothko.
In “Sybil,” her repeated image, à la Warhol, in blue becomes a backdrop for a giant red skull. A stark black-and-white skull holds the center of “Good-Bye,” flanked by a Pinocchio figure with stigmata and a rudimentary Catholic church. Again the puppet is simultaneously cute and disturbing, and the whole canvas packs a powerful punch, laden with death and danger.
While the ceramics and large paintings draw the most attention from the viewer, a number of smaller mixed media drawings show us the process of Sarich’s thinking. In these visual diaries, he juggles his vocabulary of symbols both public and private. Mickey, the Virgin, the skull, Devil Girl, fish, churches, boats, birds, fishing bobs and worms are limned with a fine tracery that creates richly textured, multilayered works.
There is implicit in his works a critique of the global commercialization of pop images to sell products while underneath is a rich realm of subliminal imagery from his subconscious. Sarich’s work is compelling on many levels – social, personal and archetypal.
Sadly, Sarich, who was a 2007 recipient of the prestigious Joan Mitchell award, is suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which has progressed to a stage where he is no longer going to be able to work in the medium of ceramic sculpture. The Mickey Mouse sculptures in this show are probably the last that he will make.
But he continues to paint and draw with vigor and amazing graphic energy. The paintings and drawings in this show are among the strongest of his works I have seen. You won’t want to miss them.