“When do things lose their meaning? That is the question I’m asking.” For the past 40 years, Michael Sarich has been drawing, painting, and assembling answers—mashing up images of Mickey Mouse, devil girl tattoos, the Virgin Guadalupe, fish, and skulls to create deep collages that are stripped of substance but stacked with stuff. Pop iconography on top of pop iconography on top of personal pictures.
For his latest body of work, 3X, Sarich adds another dimension as he divides his canvases in three, sometimes rotating figures within their assumed borders. It’s a prism—a kaleidoscope that splices familiar images alongside garish colors and violent lines for an effect that is both whimsical and unnerving; a panoptic gaze that will shake your faith in your symbols.
Even if you don’t accept the premise that meaninglessness is a given, it’s hard to deny the case Sarich makes for letting yourself go there. Years ago, his paintings were these portals for me—little easements into a void I could visit but not live in. I live there now, happily, and want to tell Michael this during our interview, but never quite find the words. Instead, we sit in his studio and talk about repeating images, Pop art, and COVID. The difference between bombardment and saturation, and the reason he won’t step in when he sees his students heading for failure.
You’ve been making art for a long time, and it’s pretty clear you like working with the same icons over and over again. I’m curious when these images first showed up for you. Do they come from your childhood, or have you collected them over the years?
I collect them over the years. The church on wheels … that’s something that’s been with me for a long time. I was born Catholic, strictly raised Catholic. That’s always been a hate-love relationship. The fish has been there for a long time, too. I started out using the muskie—I use that as a symbol in my work anytime I want to symbolize my family. My family used to go muskie fishing, and it’s evolved since then. I used to work on tuna boats in Boston. I did five seasons of that, so I use that image for commercial fishing as opposed to recreational fishing. It goes both ways. I like dualities.
What other images have evolved for you?
The skulls change. It started out as Day of the Dead and Tibetan monk skulls, real beautiful objects. Now they’re just pop. They’re everywhere. That goes for the rest of the images. They’ve all evolved. Primarily my relationship is pop-based now, whereas before there were some religious aspects of it. The Virgin Guadalupe—she’s been commercialized so much she’s become a pop icon, too. And Mickey Mouse is the same way. You have a global commercialization of a product.
The question of losing meaning with Pop Art works really well with your Disney stuff. Everybody has a relationship to Disney that breaks down in some way.
Yeah, it’s a hate-love relationship. The image is so commercialized it loses its identity. It’s good for kids, some adults like it. Just the generic quality of it. It’s a canned image. It loses sincerity because of commercialization.
Commercialization feels seamless now. Do you think these images have become ingrained enough in our psyches that you have to put one on a giant canvas to make the viewer notice it?
Well, my work has a little bit of that in it—bombardment of imagery. There’s not the saturation of imagery that you’re getting so much, where you can’t see straight anymore. It does force you to be a critic, which I think is good. You’ve got to pick the things out that you think are good and swallow the things you think are bad using critical judgment.
So the difference between bombardment and saturation is that bombardment can jolt you? It could make you see something?
It’s much more physical.
Let’s talk about 3X, your exhibition that is up now at Oats Park. The repeated images we’ve been talking about, the visual language you’ve created, that’s all there … but something that seems new are your triptychs. Can you talk about this format?
I started the triptychs for a Sierra Arts show called “[Touching the] Third Rail.” I did a piece for that show and then I thought, “How can I push this farther?” Take the three objects—life and death and trilogy—just work with that, a compositional format for the rest of the works to take place in.
I think one thing that struck me in the show—especially with the big grid of small triptychs—was that the divided paintings felt like flashing images. Almost like thought but not as formed … like when your brain is shuffling between pictures.
Definitely a flipbook type of situation. That’s why we installed it that way. We wanted that movement.
Another thing you seem to be playing with in your compositions is viewpoint. You did this with one of your fish and one of your devil girls – where the shape of the object itself was clearly the fish or the girl’s head, but the image inside was turned on its own axis.
I’m continuing the composition outside the form. There’s something being completed that is not there. There’s a rotating quality. All the work is very portrait-oriented, and I want to take into consideration what’s happening outside the painting. So this is a certain view of that.
Can you tell me about your art practice here in the studio? You’ve been living with Parkinson’s for 20 years now, so I imagine you’ve had to adapt your studio work somewhat.
It suddenly slowed down. I still get five or six hours a day. That’s my tops though. I wear out. It used to be eight to ten. We also changed the systems with the application of the graphics. For years it was just follow-the-numbers. I do the works, but with the graphics I have some help.
Has the pandemic impacted the way you have to work at all?
It’s definitely made me work at home more. [The University of Nevada, Reno] was shut down for a while, too. You couldn’t get in here.
Are you teaching in person now?
I will be next semester.
What advice would you give students who are coming into art at a time when there are so many extra obstacles on top of all of the usual ones?
I’d say they’ve got to love it. They’ve got to be real passionate about it. Because nobody gives a damn about you when you’re out here. So you really have to be driven. And if you don’t want to do the work, don’t. A lot of rejection comes with the territory. It’s something you’ve got to live with.
How do you help art students to discover their path?
I like the idea that you’ve got to take your own path. Find out what the idea is about. If I see it’s going to be a failure, I don’t say that anymore. I don’t say, “It’s the wrong path, don’t take it.” Now I let them take it and discover it. It’s more important for me to have them discover their visual language and not me. And there’s only one way to do that and it’s the work. That’s the whole key.
Yes, it’s the work. Is it dead ends too?
Yeah. I think that’s as important as doing a good piece. Working the bad ones, too.
Do you still make work that you consider bad?
It doesn’t happen as much. Pieces fight with me. When you can’t get things to click … I think that happens when I’m overdirecting the piece. You overdirect, it gets stale. I always think, when you’re working you want to get to a place where you’re in the zone. You think you’ve been there an hour, and you’ve been there eight hours. That’s where you want to be with the work because it’s taken over.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing COVID pieces. I did a COVID snowman. It is just dots—red dots—all over the snowman.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Paintings and sculptures from Michael Sarich’s 3X series are on display at and Jay Jay Gallery in Sacramento and Oats Park Art Center in Fallon. Due to COVID safety measures, Oats Park’s galleries are open by appointment only. To arrange a visit, call 775-423-1440 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the artist’s work, visit his website.
This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.