Fallon, NV

Michael Sarich

E.L. Wiegand Gallery in the Oats Park Art Center

In 1928, on a train from New York to his hometown of Los Angeles, a young Walt Disney filled the hours by doodling. He was depressed, having just lost the copyright for an unsuccessful cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to discontented financial backers. But, unwilling to submit to gloom and doom, Disney busied himself with trying to conceive the ultimate “sympathetic” character. This arrived in the unexpected figure of a mouse with wide-set eyes and red velvet pants. The kindhearted rodent, Disney proclaimed, would be named Mortimer Mouse. (Disney’s wife, Lillian, pronounced the name pretentious and suggested Mickey instead.)

Who knew that a mouse—that animal previously best known for inspiring irrational disgust—could come to stand for so much? Indeed, if, for Walt, Mickey was the embodiment of goodness, the varmint would over the years come to be nearly synonymous with Americana as such. (In her book Hollywood Flatlands [2002], Esther Leslie points out that pins of Mickey were sometimes even worn, in the early 1930s, as a symbol of American anti-Nazi sentiment.)

If it seems hard today to think of Mickey as the repository of such earnest feeling, it’s because the mouse with big white gloves has become little more than a marketing device for expensive family vacations. And it is this inherent discord at the heart of icons—signs so glutted with meaning that they can feel paradoxically empty—that characterizes the art of Michael Sarich. Sarich has over the years assembled a motley cartoon cast of his own, including Mickey, the Guadalupe Virgin, a pitchfork-wielding devil-girl (a popular postwar tattoo), a manic Krazy Kat–style feline, and loads of skulls (indebted equally to Andy Warhol and the Day of the Dead).

A recent retrospective at the Oats Park Art Center of a selection of Sarich’s work from the last twenty-eight years (and a smaller showing of recent work at Stremmel Gallery in Reno) foregrounded the artist’s interest in a kind of fantastic cultural anthropology. Here, in paintings, prints, drawings, and ceramics, aesthetics and ideologies behaved like oil and water—perpetually separated until violently shaken. Indeed, densely layered surfaces prepared the stage for so many strange encounters: What happens, the artist seems to ask, when a slew of cultural icons are forced into close proximity with one another? The answer is a series of spiraling standoffs, in which Mickey gets progressively disfigured, cathedral spires are toppled, swastikas become mere design elements, and narrative gives way to chaotic symbolic overload.

Yet Sarich’s work still has a utopian air, as does Mickey himself (however dragged through the capitalist mud he may be). While the earliest works here display an out-and-out aggression toward endlessly recycled pinup girls, bumper-sticker virgins, and even artistic style, Sarich’s latest are imbued with a pathos that complicates and softens his deconstructive tactics. Indeed, for all his pictorial attention to the internal ambivalence of every such icon, the artist recognizes (perhaps fetishizes) the desire for images that represent faith in something. The latest icon to make its way into his repertoire is the dumbest and most reduced of all—the classic generic yellow smiley face. “Be Happy” is the entire content of its message, reiterated on everything from dry cleaning to Chinese take-out bags. (It hardly needs pointing out that the effect produced in us when we see it is almost never cheerfulness but instead out-and-out irritation.) But in Sarich’s hands, Mr. Smiley gains some chops and goes head to head with Mickey. Despite ourselves, we can’t help but take sides.

Johanna Burton