Monday, February 25, 2008

Like, Love, Lust: Michael Sarich Tour Blueprint

Like, Love, Lust: Michael Sarich consists of more than one hundred paintings, prints, ceramic sculptures, drawings, and mixed media assemblages created by University of Nevada, Reno Associate Professor of Art Michael Sarich over the last twenty-five years. The NMA originated this exhibition, and Ann Wolfe curated all of the works in the exhibition, which come from public and private collections from around the world. The beautiful catalogue accompanying the exhibition is an entirely original production published by the NMA. It contains essays by Robert Sill, Kirk Robertson, and Ann Wolfe, as well as full-color plates of much of Mike’s work included in this exhibition. It’s available at the Museum Store, and represents the work of many NMA staff.

In addition to the rich visual characteristics of Michael’s work, the exhibition lends itself to conversation topics such as Post War American culture, Pop Culture, symbolism, science, religion, and personal histories. Finally, the exhibition provides a rich opportunity to emphasize the depths to which the NMA supports local artists. A feature exhibition of this size represents an extraordinary investment—financially, intellectually, and artistically—in the work of a local artist.

Wall Texts
The letter L appears in triplicate on Michael Sarich’s heavily tattooed left forearm—indelible marks representing the words like, love, and lust. “I like you. I love you. I lust after you,” the artist stated as he proposed marriage to the woman who is now his wife. For Sarich, the function of a mark—whether on canvas, clay, wood, or his own body—is to communicate with those around him. An Associate Professor of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno since 1989, Sarich has instilled in hundreds of students the importance of cultivating one’s own creative voice. This exhibition critically examines the evolution of Sarich’s personal language of mark-making, while celebrating the important contributions he has made—and will continue to make—both in our community and beyond.
Over the course of his career, Sarich’s art has shifted from deeply personal expressions to broadly social commentaries. From the late seventies to the early nineties, his works overflowed with graffiti-like marks that are scribbled and scrawled on paper, wood, and recycled objects—much like the art produced by Chicago’s Hairy Who artists and those affiliated with Art Brut and Outsider Art. As Sarich’s mark-making continued to shift, he became drawn to an assortment of popular and religious symbols, such as Mickey Mouse and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Even today, he combines such recognizable icons with layers of densely-packed, lyrical marks. This technique places him within a loosely-affiliated, largely West Coast group of artists dubbed Pop Surrealists, who are known for incorporating—and personalizing—an eclectic range of visual source materials.
In 2000, Sarich was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and although it has already had a drastic impact on his speech and motor skills, he continues to pursue his work with unfailing passion and commitment. To view Sarich’s artwork is to trace the path he has navigated thus far; it is to know his family and his friends, his secrets and his wounds. It is to deconstruct a lifetime of experiences in hopes that from his story we gain but an ounce of his unfailing courage and honesty, and learn that it is only by taking risks that we might live without fear of regret.

Bruised and Tattooed: The Early Work
Sarich was a Chicago boy. Born in 1955, he grew up in a two-bedroom rambler in the West Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows. His father was a hard-nosed, barrel-chested man of Croatian stock with a wry sense of humor and a thick Chicago accent. His mother, small in stature, was Irish Catholic and loving. To Sarich, Chicago meant “family:” a locus of pleasure and pain. A place where fond memories collided with nightmares of a Catholic upbringing and overly stern punishments meted out for the slightest infraction fomented deep-seated anger and frustration.
Sarich’s early works are akin to visual diaries overflowing with unrefined, graffiti-like marks that are scribbled and scrawled across paper or carved into wood. Many of these works refer to his childhood, some are love letters to past girlfriends, and others are snapshots of late nights spent at the bar. “I was taking a daily experience and putting it into a visual story on a nightly basis,” Sarich has said of these early works.

The Social Underbelly: Working Outside the Mainstream
As an undergraduate art student at the Northern Illinois University in DeKalb (1973-80), and then a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman (1982-83), Michael Sarich was surely aware of the trends ongoing in the mainstream art world. Sarich chose, however, to eschew the Minimalist and Conceptualist tendencies he witnessed, and instead produced works that were intensely personal and autobiographical.
Sarich looked to the work of H.C. Westermann and Chicago’s Hairy Who artists, as well as Jean Dubuffet and others affiliated with Art Brut, whose raw, aggressive, and unrefined sensibilities were often tuned to the social underbelly—a world seemingly more in line with what Sarich has described as his “blue-collar sensibility.”

La Cathédrale de Michele

In 1999, Sarich undertook a major installation that re-examined his Catholic upbringing. La Cathédrale de Michel questioned the ritualized traditions of the Catholic Church by modifying a traditional altar and the iconography associated with it. Mounted at the Nevada Museum of Art, La Cathédrale was a mock-Catholic altar adorned with ceramic skulls, black-and-white gambling dice, hundreds of dotted dominoes, and a kitschy sculpture of Venus de Milo (the Greek Goddess of love and beauty) in place of the traditional Virgin Mary shrine.
Created just two years after the death of his father, Sarich once called La Cathédrale a shrine to his dad, who, as Sarich explains, “used to play dice in the streets.” The installation seemed to cynically assert that religion is just a game to help people come to terms with their mortality. Sarich’s reconsideration of the symbols he was once taught to revere as sacred would prove crucial to the development of his future body of work.

Looking Inside: The Body Parts
Michael Sarich has spent considerable time investigating the intricacies of the human body. From anatomical renderings of internal organs to ceramic sculptures depicting cellular processes, Sarich’s works invite us beneath the skin’s surface to search for meaningful answers to life’s complex questions.
The organs and appendages Sarich depicts are often detached from the human body, and as such, their fragility is exposed to the exterior world. Having suffered from a collapsed lung as a child and unexplained heart problems in 1993, Sarich has long been aware of the vulnerability of the human body—an awareness that has become even more poignant, given his recent diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease.

All Mashed Up: Pop Surrealism
Michael Sarich’s most recent paintings and sculptures combine popular icons with recurring personal references. Often a large centralized icon—such as the Virgin of Guadalupe or Mickey Mouse—is surrounded or overlaid with densely packed, lyrical drawings; a combination of marks whose lines and shapes ebb and flow like varying musical tempos. This eclectic layering and combination of influences, often imbued with a dose of political inflection, places Sarich within a loosely-affiliated, largely West Coast group of artists dubbed Pop Surrealists by Kirsten Anderson in 2004.
According to Anderson, Pop Surrealism is:
"an amalgamation of so many things: tattoo, graffiti, retro culture, cartoons, etc., all mashed up and used to create something that transcended its mere visual appeal. Something that spoke profoundly...about using pop culture’s castoff detritus to create something meaningful and beautiful. And if it wasn’t beautiful, well, it was exciting. It delighted the eye and shocked the sensibilities, and was a welcome change from the increasing boorishness of the recycled ideas and stale conceptualism found in most contemporary art."

I used to scream at the viewer. Now I talk to them.
Over the course of Michael Sarich’s life, his relationship to mark-making has become increasingly complex, while his iconography has evolved from the deeply personal to the broadly social by way of symbolic and popular references. “In my early work I was wearing my heart on my sleeve, real gushy,” Sarich recollects.
In the early nineties, shortly after accepting a teaching position at the University of Nevada, Reno, Sarich began to regularly incorporate popular symbols and icons into his art. “Crying in your beer is okay, but you have to get over it,” he surmised. “So I shifted to social imagery as a visual hook: something to draw the viewer in first. I used to scream at the viewer, now I talk to them.” Although his art remains deeply personal, Sarich prefers that viewers derive their own meanings from his paintings and sculptures. “Art,” Sarich asserts, “is a communication that has dialogue with the viewer.”

What the Hell’s going on here? A Postmodern Puzzle
Michael Sarich hopes that his art will elicit multiple interpretations and a range of responses. “What the Hell’s going on here?” he wants us to ask. “Why did this person do this?” Sometimes the symbols he depicts are so dense with historical, social, and political meanings that they seem to become empty—or meaningless.
Within the cacophonous visual stew that Sarich assembles, the definitions of symbols and icons shift freely depending on the sensibilities of the viewer. Mickey Mouse may or may not represent the happiest place on earth, swastika symbols are free to assume the positive energy of their ancient roots, and that perpetual smiley face seen on the side of Wal-Mart bags across the nation does not necessarily represent happiness.
In the end, one’s attempt to explain these paintings and sculptures might be best described as an absurdist game—one haunted, simultaneously, by the attempt to discover meaning and by the lingering suspicion that there is no meaning at all. Postmodern puzzles, they are indeed.

Mike’s Office, University of Nevada, Reno
Since 1989, Sarich has occupied Office #201 in the Church Fine Arts Building on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno. Although Sarich is rarely in his office (he prefers to meet with students in the painting studio), it is a treasure trove of postcards, mementos, and newspaper clippings that provides insight into his creative process. This re-creation of Sarich’s office attempts to capture the spirit and energy of one of UNR’s most legendary places.

You’ll find Like, Love, Lust installed in the Feature Gallery East and Feature Gallery South on the third floor. The exhibition is largely chronological and organized into three broad categories—“Early Work,” “Body Parts,” and “Late Work,” with spotlight attention on a reconstruction of Mike’s “office” and La Cathedrele de Michel, an installation piece that has been previously exhibited at the NMA. While we don’t intend to dictate how people should experience the exhibition, the exhibition is laid out with a narrative in mind, which is to say that there is a story to be told about Michael’s work as it has evolved and matured over the years.

Relevant Vocabulary
Pop Art is a visual art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and in parallel in the late-1950s in the United States. The coinage of the term Pop Art is often credited to British art critic/curator, Lawrence Alloway in an essay titled The Arts and the Mass Media, although the term he uses is “popular mass culture.” Nevertheless, Alloway was one of the leading critics to defend mass culture and Pop Art as a legitimate art form. Pop Art is one of the major art movements of the twentieth century. Characterized by themes and techniques drawn from popular mass culture, such as advertising and comic books, pop art is widely interpreted as either a reaction to the then-dominant ideas of abstract expressionism or an expansion upon them. Pop Art, like pop music, aimed to employ images of popular, as opposed to elitist, culture in art, emphasizing the banal or kitschy elements of any given culture. It has also been defined by the artists’ use of mechanical means of reproduction or rendering techniques that downplay the expressive hand of the artist. Pop Art at times targeted a broad audience, and often claimed to do so. Much of Pop Art is considered very academic, as the unconventional organizational practices used often make it difficult for some to comprehend. Pop Art and Minimalism are considered to be the last modern art movements and thus the precursors to postmodern art, or some of the earliest examples of postmodern art themselves.

Pop Surrealism (also Lowbrow, or lowbrow art) describes an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California, area in the late 1970s. Lowbrow is a widespread populist art movement with origins in the underground comics world, punk music, hot-rod street culture, and other California subcultures. It is also often known by the name pop surrealism. Lowbrow was born of underground culture. Lowbrow art has a sense of humor. Sometimes the humor is gleeful, sometimes impish and sometimes it's of sarcastic comment, but it is always present.
Most lowbrow artworks are paintings, but there are also toys, digital art, and sculpture.
In an article in the February 2006 issue of his magazine Juxtapoz, Robert Williams took credit for originating the term “lowbrow art.” He stated that, in 1979, Gilbert Shelton of the publisher Rip-Off Press decided to produce a book featuring Willams's paintings. Williams said that he decided to give the book the self-deprecating title, “The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams,” since no authorized art institution would recognize his type of art. “Lowbrow” was thus used by Williams in opposition to highbrow. He said the name then stuck, even though he feels that it is inappropriate.
Lowbrow is also commonly referred to as pop surrealism. Kirsten Anderson, who edited the book Pop Surrealism, considers lowbrow and pop surrealism to be related but distinct movements. She defined Pop Surrealism thus: “an amalgamation of so many things: tattoo, graffiti, retro culture, cartoons, etc., all mashed up and used to create something that transcended its mere visual appeal. Something that spoke profoundly…about using pop culture’s castoff detritus to create something meaningful and beautiful. And if it wasn’t beautiful, well, it was exciting. It delighted the eye and shocked the sensibilities, and was a welcome change from the increasing boorishness of the recycled ideas and stale conceptualism found in most contemporary art.” However, Matt Dukes Jordan, author of Weirdo Deluxe, views the terms as interchangeable.

Chicago Imagists were a group of representational artists associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s. Their work was known for grotesquerie, surrealism, and complete uninvolvement with New York art world trends. One remarkable thing about them was the high proportion of female artists among them. There are three distinct groups that, outside of Chicago, are indiscriminately bundled together as Imagists: The Monster Roster, the Hairy Who, and the Chicago Imagists.

The Hairy Who was a subgroup of the Chicago Imagists (see above). Don Baum curated three “Hairy Who” exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1966, 1967, and 1968. The name is meant to sound like a rock group. The Hairy Who included: Don Baum, James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum

The Monster Roster was a subgroup of Chicago artists within the larger group of Chicago Imagists (see above), several of whom served in World War II and were able to go to art school thanks to the G.I. Bill. They were given their name in 1959 by critic Franz Schulze, based on their existential, sometimes gruesome, semi-mystical figurative work. The Monster Roster included: Don Baum, Carlo Campoli, George Cohen, Dominic Di Meo, Leon Golub, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Seymour Rosofsky, Nancy Spero, H. C. Westermann, Karl Wirsum

Outsider Art as a term was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972 as an English synonym for Art Brut (which literally translates as “Raw Art” or “Rough Art”), a label created by French artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art created outside the boundaries of official culture. Dubuffet focused particularly on art by insane asylum inmates. While Dubuffet's term is quite specific, the English term “Outsider Art” is often applied more broadly, to include certain self-taught or Naïve art makers who were never institutionalized. Typically, those labeled as Outsider Artists have little or no contact with the institutions of the mainstream art world; in many cases, their work is discovered only after their deaths. Much Outsider Art illustrates extreme mental states, unconventional ideas, or elaborate fantasy worlds. Outsider Art has emerged as a successful art marketing category (an annual Outsider Art Fair has taken place in New York since 1992); thus the term is sometimes misapplied as a catch-all marketing label for art created by people outside the "art world" mainstream, regardless of their circumstances or the content of their work.

Art Brut see above.

Prominent Sarich Symbols

  • Turtle considered by essayist Robert Sill to be Michael Sarich’s alter ego, this symbol first appeared in his early work after he was invited to join a group of turtle hunters on one of his fishing trips. The symbol has many meanings, but is connected to the idea of inner and outer, inside/outside, and self reliance.
  • Fish a symbol of personal significance, Sarich was an avid sport fisherman. You’ll see fish symbols in much of Sarich’s work, but also fishing-related symbols such as nets, floats, and eggs.
  • Virgin of Guadalupe a symbol of Catholicism, particularly important in Latino traditions. She is considered an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and is Mexico’s most beloved religious and cultural image. Sarich finds it interesting, in part, because of the vast commercialization of her image.
  • Mickey Mouse like the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mickey Mouse is a vastly commercialized figure, which is the reason for Sarich’s interest.
  • Beach Ball this symbol carries deep personal significance for Sarich. As a boy, Sarich’s father, who was at times abusive, jumped into a lake to “save” a family beachball from disappearing, despite his inability to swim. The effort had a lasting impact on Sarich.
  • Swasktika derived from the Sankskrit word svasktika, meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck. It is composed of su-, meaning “good, well,” and asti, a verbal abract to the root as “to be;” svasti thus means “well-being.” The suffix –ka forms a diminutive, and svastika might thusbe ranslated literally as “little thing associated with well-being,” corresponding to “lucky charm” or “thing that is auspicious.” Probably first used inNeolithic India
  • Birds particularly finches, are prominent symbols in Sarich’s work signifying Darwinian science, in particular. The direct relationship is that Darwin studied finches in the Galapagos Islands noting the peculiarly unique shapes of the beaks of thirteen related species.
  • Nests in addition to the relationship to birds (see above), nests also signify an important sense of home and security in Sarich’s art.
  • Buoys related to fish (see above).
  • Skull Sarich is fascinated by the history of skull imagery, particularly in the traditions of the imagery of Tibetan monastics, Dia de los Muertos, motorcycle culture, and tattoo flash.
  • Smiley Face the Wal-Mart smiley face signifies all kinds of tensions and uncertainties in Sarich’s work, especially in the relationships between “happiness” and “consumerism” and “commercialization.”
  • Body parts are prominent in Sarich’s art, and signify much related to his interest in inner/outer, internal/external, science, and systems (skeletal, reproductive, digestive, neurological, etc.). Of course, this interest is cast into a different light considering his diagnosis in 2000 with Parkinson’s disease.
  • Prop this image figures prominently in much of Sarich’s more recent work. Remember that he claims no definition for it; however, it does signify notions of the prop (fishing, fishing boats, power); proposition (e.g., suggestion, question, proposal); as well as an effort to reclaim the meaning of an ancient and powerful symbol from its having been corrupted by the forces of the third reich.

Tour Framework
  • Ask guests to think about any symbols, images, or icons that hold some significance for them. What are the symbols and images that they find significant, and why?
  • Explain that, as an artist, Mike Sarich has spent his whole career exploring the significance of personal and cultural symbols and icons, and that it is on his exploration of these symbols that part of the tour will be based.
  • Explain that “Like, Love, Lust” is a reference to the tattoo on Mike’s left hand and wrist, a mark that he had made on his arm in honor of his proposal of marriage to his wife, Valerie.
  • Explain that the three Ls are referents for Like, Love, and Lust, and that he had the word Life tattooed on his arm after Valerie accepted his marriage proposal—signifying his the commitment he was making to her.
  • Explain to guests that the exhibition is laid out more or less chronologically, beginning with his earliest work as a graduate student.
  • Convey the story about when Mike, on a fishing trip as a young art student, was invited by a group of turtle hunters to join them in their hunt. The experience had a significant impact on Mike as a young man and as an artist, and images of turtles remain in his work today.
  • Ask guests to compare the qualities of the turtle drawings on the north wall of the East Gallery with the adjacent drawings called “Stop” and “Cocaine” on the east wall of the gallery. What words could be used to describe each group of drawings? Hints: the turtle drawings are highly detailed, with a very fine draftsmanship quality to them; conversely, “Stop” and “Cocaine” are purposely rough, almost unfinished, and child-like.
  • Explain that Mike Sarich is a highly trained artist: he completed his MFA degree at the University of Oklahoma in 1983. The highly refined style of the turtle drawings is a result, in part, of this academic training. Compared or contrasted to the “Cocaine” and “Stop” drawings on the east wall of the East Gallery, we can see a much less refined style—this is on purpose, and is the result of experimentations with the influence of artists in the groups known as Chicago Imagists, The Monster Roster, and, especially, The Hairy Who.
  • Explain to guests that Sarich was raised on the west side of Chicago, and that as a young man, he was very interested in the work of The Hairy Who artists, including Don Baum, James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and especially Karl Wirsum.
  • Ask guests to consider Sarich’s sculptures hanging on the west wall of the East Gallery. What kinds of words might be used to describe them? Hints: folk, folk art, found object, handmade, natural materials, etc.
  • Explain that as a result of the influence of the Chicago Imagists and especially The Hairy Who artists, Sarich took an early and strong interest in found object, folk-art-inspired sculpture. Yet the work is extraordinarily personal: Sarich loves to fish, for example, and the piece titled “Hope” was created by Sarich for a pregnant friend.
  • Ask guests to consider what kinds of messages Sarich’s early work in the East Gallery seems to convey.
  • Explain that Sarich sees in his early work (all of which is in the East Gallery) an effort on his part to “wear his emotions on his sleeves” and that he seems to be “screaming at the viewer.”
  • Explain to guests that as he matured as an artist, Sarich felt that he moved away from a heart-on-his-sleeve, scream-at-you style, to a more subtle style that engages the viewers where they are at, asking them to think about things such as American consumer culture, Darwinian science, symbols and their meanings, and so on.
  • Explain to guests that the NMA has re-created Sarich’s office at UNR in the gallery for guests to see the creative “melting pot” that is part of his inspiration.
  • Ask guests to consider the artwork in the Body Parts section of the gallery. What do they see as Sarich’s interest in this part of his work? At first, guests might see little or nothing that Sarich might be getting at, but ask them to consider what kinds of body parts that are represented: a heart, a stomach, a penis, and a brain in “Fishin’ in the Dark,” for example.
  • Encourage guests to extrapolate from this information further…e.g., that not only are these individual body parts, but they are the organs that are central to specific bodily systems—circulatory, digestive, reproductive, and nervous, respectively, in this example.
  • Explain that as Sarich’s interest turned to making his work less personal and more widely culturally-oriented, he heard a radio story while fishing on a boat that the cat had become the most popular American pet, surpassing the dog for the first time. As a result, Sarich began to incorporate cat images in his artwork, beginning with “Stewart’s Cat,” and then the “Dice” woodblock prints. The images are an effort on the artist’s part to engage viewers in his art on a broader, cultural level, rather than on the significance of his personal imagery and symbols. As a result of this experimentation with culturally relevant imagery and symbols, Sarich spent more time exploring images--symbols such as birds (symbols of Darwinian science, and Darwin’s famous examination of the beaks of finches), Wal-Mart smiley faces (symbols of low prices or mass consumerism, depending on your perspective), images of the Virgin of Guadalupe (symbols of fervent religious belief or commercialization of religion, again, depending on your perspective), and images of skulls, cathedrals, Mickey Mouse, props, and swastikas.
  • Ask guests to look at one of the “Primary Prop” paintings. Ask what kinds of meanings they can associate with the image of the prop: boat props, propellers, BMWs, propositions, questions, deals, offers, inquiries, motions, power, etc.
  • Explain that Sarich is very interested in the meanings of symbols, and how they come to mean what they do. For example, the image of the swastika is one that has ancient roots in Native American and Hindu cultural activities, but which has a particular, and very bad, meaning for twentieth-century westerners. He is interested in the ways in which the symbol’s meaning came to change, and how to reclaim, or appropriate, the symbol’s meaning from its relatively recent history.
  • Ask guests about what they might have thought about Sarich’s artwork as they entered the gallery. Has any of their thinking shifted as a result of seeing it in the light of the information about Sarich’s personal life, interests, and some of the meanings of his work?
  • Finally, thank guests for their time and attention, and for their interest in, and support of, the Nevada Museum of Art.