Thirty-two skulls hang on the north wall of the Missoula Art Museum's Faith Pinkton and Josephine Aresty Gallery. Some resemble masks of ancient pagan rituals—hollow eye sockets, charred facial features, unsettling countenances. One is fitted with a decaying crown, another with a protruding fish and yet another one with a swastika seemingly branded onto the forehead. Several more sport Mickey Mouse ears.
This collection of brooding ceramic casts—appropriately titled "Skull Wall"—is just one of the pieces in artist Michael Sarich's exhibit, titled Hush & Babel. Sarich, an art professor at the University of Nevada–Reno, employs a variety of mediums, including acrylic on canvas, Plexiglas and fish bobbers, to convey an overarching theme of consumerism and consumption. Sarich evokes the motif through numerous allusions to pop culture figures such as Mickey Mouse, the Virgin of Guadalupe, skulls associated with Dia de los Muertos and smiling devils.
"They've lost their character almost," Sarich says of the cultural artifacts. "They just become symbols of consumerism."
The exhibit's name also reflects a sense of distorted connotation amid excessive commercialization and over-saturation. Originally titled Whispers and Screams, Hush & Babel refers to the Old Testament tower whose construction was thwarted by God, and is Sarich's way of addressing this modern-day "confusion of tongues," as he puts it, of how pop culture images can become sacred.
"I think [the pop features] almost take on religious iconography," he says.
What sets Sarich's work apart from mere pop culture referencing, however, is his juxtaposition of these iconic symbols with more mundane images. "Camouflage" depicts the easily recognizable smiley face symbol with four propeller-like tendrils extending outward. The face and its appendages are covered in typical green and brown camouflage paint, as well as little chinks that may suggest this popular staple of happiness has seen one too many skirmishes. In the background, set in a darker shade of army green, are a pair 1928-era Mickeys (one holding a grenade) in addition to a number of crudely drawn tanks, bombs and a church.
Another piece encapsulating the ethos of Hush & Babel is "Got Peeps," one of six works that incorporates a Plexiglas case. With "Peeps," Sarich intertwines the sacrosanct with the commercial aspects of the Easter holiday: a yellow crucifix with the pierced hands of Jesus on either end, complete with plastic Easter eggs hanging on hooks from either arm; an image of the Virgin, along with a basket filled with a rabbit skin, at its base; an encasement of peeps in the middle; and, to top it off, a pink Dia de los Muertos skull. Similar works have Mickey-esque heads replete with penciled stubble and eyes suggesting the famous mouse is either hung over or under the influence of some narcotic.
Despite this seemingly morbid interplay of the holy and the everyday, Sarich says his artwork is more light-hearted than it may appear at face value, and that he views it as "pop-driven" rather than provocative.
"I don't look at that imagery as shocking," he says. "I don't do shocking."
"Skull Wall," by example, isn't an attempt to appall or disgust viewers, but is rather a series of designs from Sarich's sketchbook.
But the artist—who describes his style as the product of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gilbert and George teaming up against Andy Warhol and it ending in a draw—does say Hush & Babel is more social in its context than his previous, more personal, work. Now, at 54 and with Parkinson's, Sarich has to keep his efforts more centered because of his limited amount of energy.
"It's more directed and more focused," he says.
Sarich visits Missoula this week to give an artist's gallery talk as a part of MAM's First Friday festivities. Sarich says he plans to speak after the audience sees his work so they can trust their own instincts as viewers. Additionally, he says he doesn't want the audience to read the artist statement because he wants them to rely on their own personal interpretations.
"You have to come out with questions so the work has a dialogue," he says. "I like them to come to their own conclusions."
MAM hosts an artist reception for Hush & Babel Friday, Oct. 1, at 5 PM, with a gallery talk with Michael Sarich at 6 PM. Free.