For some artists, beauty lies in the grotesque, obtuse and mystical. These subjects are the center of local sculptor Michael Thomsen’s work — not only does his art focus on such subjects, but they’re made of objects that embody those words.
“These were two separate [tables] — two homely end tables from the ’80s,” Thomsen said about the base of a sculpture he was working on. “[There are] a lot of things in front of you that create lines and designs. They might be the ugliest thing in the world from the worst period of fashion, but if you can see a quick manipulation, it’s amazing what you can turn them into.”
Thomsen’s latest show, Mystery School, opens Saturday at Public Functionary in northeast Minneapolis. The sculptures Thomsen created for the show center around themes of freemasonry and the occult in classical times and mythology.
Thomsen’s sculptures are a pastiche of the colors and imagery of 1960s horror films with serious undertones. Pieces like “Roma Key Club” feature vibrant blue, bright red and antique electric green, and an ominous cutout of the number two sits at the sculpture’s center, right above a plaster-cast hand embedded with a keyhole.
Others, like a work based on the Book of Giants from the Dead Sea Scrolls, feature figurines set upon a two-tiered shrine. Two homemade brown skulls signifying human-angel offspring, and a gold bust of the leader of the fallen angels, shrouding it in ominous mystery.
An origin story
The gallery approached Thomsen two years ago about the exhibition — he’d been an ardent supporter since its inception.
“They’ve been real strong, and they opened the gate with huge, huge artists,” Thomsen said of Public Functionary. “I’ve helped out with a few shows, and just been a regular. … They take someone that they want to push into a new level by challenging them [by] not just presenting a bigger show of their old work, but to take some chances and turns if they have a concept that they want to do that with.”
Thomsen’s relationship with freemasonry began when he was a child in rural Minnesota. His grandfather was a master mason of the Blue Lodge of the Masonic Temple who retired into Shriners International, a nonprofit associated with children’s hospitals and circuses. He delved into the elder Thomsen’s library of masonic books, trying to understand the intricate rules, systems and rituals essential to freemason culture.
“I would look at these pictures and read these esoteric things, and say, ‘This is my grandfather?’ ” Thomsen said.
The first-floor duplex that serves as Thomsen’s studio and residence is filled to the brim with the sculptures for Mystery School, texts inspiring his artwork and various knickknacks and objects incorporated in his art.
For Mystery School, Thomsen read a collection of books dissecting freemasons, cults and secret societies, many of which were unearthed at local thrift stores or borrowed from friends. Mainstream titles from Joseph Campbell share space with esoteric tomes like “The Golden Dawn” — a book that helped start the modern occult movement — and tongue-in-cheek coffee table books like “The Joy of Sects.” The crux of the artwork comes from such literature as well as historical influences.
While Thompson isn’t a devout person, religion and the supernatural follow him wherever he goes. He relocated to his new lodgings while beginning the Mystery School sculptures. His former studio across the street was the schoolhouse for the Polish National Catholic Church, and his current residence turned out to have similar divine associations.
“I met the ... guy who owned it and took it,” Thomsen said of his duplex. “Turns out, he and his family [have been members] of that church forever. They bought a lot of property — his father did — back in the ’50s, and this house was a house where the priests and nuns would stay when they were visiting the school or to talk at the church.”
Such subjects find Thomsen in other places as well. After a trip to Italy where he and a friend stumbled upon the hideouts and lore of the country’s ancient secret societies, he founded a dinner group called the Roma Key Club — which is also the title of one of his sculptures for the exhibition — where bon vivants from various walks of life gathered together to dine, drink and make merry.
“We started riffing on all these ideas about what it should be based on, and maybe having some rituals involved,” Thomsen said. “I had this great space, so when I came back we started having these dinner parties. We would send out last-minute requests to people who didn’t know each other. When we start it again, we’re going to have certain sayings and rituals before we get started on wine and dinner. Nothing crazy, but I want to make it more of a [secret society]. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll take it nonprofit.”
Jocular darkness and wry mystery are Thomsen’s defining traits as well, extending into his life beyond his artwork. He’s not a fan of modern technology and has many ideas about how he conducts his own life that intersect with the themes of his work.
“I’m a little paranoid about the bigger picture of the world,” Thomsen said. “Eventually, our souls will be imprinted, somehow, in the digital format.