Michael Thomsen's interest in secret societies, mythologies, and the occult stems from his grandfather, an auctioneer who belonged to the Blue Lodge of the Masonic Temple.
"I was really flipped out by that as a kid," Thomsen recalls.
When Warren (Barney) Thomsen, the Master Mason, passed away in the early 1990s, Michael Thomsen was given some of his jewelry and other items from the lodge. In recent years, he's researched the Masons and other secret groups.
"It all goes back to pre-religions," he says. "Religions came out of cults, and cults were secret societies of some sort."
For "Mystery School," Thomsen's solo show at Public Functionary, he not only dives into Masonic imagery, but also takes bits from the Bible, Greek and Roman mythology, and an assortment of esoteric narratives, including angel-descended mutant giants, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and third eyes that see beyond ordinary sight.
Despite the source of his recent inspiration, Thomsen has never been a religious person.
"I had this unusual religious experience as a child," he says of attending church while growing up in Austin, Minnesota. "It was sort of a made-up Christian folk kind of thing on the poor side of town. It was cool, but it was very music jamboree, which was strange." His parents would just drop him off, as they didn't attend themselves, and he would usually try to ditch out.
He also occasionally attended a Catholic church with the family next door. Even today, he's fascinated by the imagery and pageantry of Catholicism, an element that often ends up in his work.
A self-taught artist, Thomsen never went to art school, instead following a more intuitive path built from a lifelong impulse to create pieces from the odds and ends found in the world around him. From his treasure trove of items collected from vintage stores, antique shops, garage sales, and lumberyards, Thomsen assembles complex works wherein objects are woven together to become ornate and often frightening narrative conglomerations. Using skillful carpentry, polymer clay, and paint, he transforms his materials into Frankenstein-like creations.
There's also a Baroque quality to Thomsen's pieces, which often have an elaborate decorative aesthetic and attention to detail. For his show at Public Functionary, he's found inspiration in Rococo, a style that tended to feature more color than earlier Baroque periods.
While many of his newer pieces have explosions of color, Thomsen uses black and white extensively in one work depicting the mythical Medusa, whose face peeks out of a pool of snakes as if she's emerging from water. This Medusa has a halo of antlers, an instinctive choice that turned out to have some basis in history, as early versions of Medusa had tusks instead of snakes.
While he's creating the work, Thomsen admits that he can sometimes get a little spooked by the imagery. "[The Dead Sea Scrolls' Book of Giants piece] kind of gets underneath my skin at certain points," he admits.
Strange things have started happening as well. One day, a childhood friend paid him a visit while he was working. They were having some wine in beer glasses, and the friend was trying to get him to go out and spend some time together outside of the studio.
"I said, 'I'd love to hang out more, but I gotta keep working. I don't want to let the bottom fall out,'" he recounts.
In the middle of that statement the bottom his glass fell out, as if it had been sliced by a glass cutter. "I didn't know what to say or do," he says. "I felt like something was knocking at my door when that happened."
For the show, there are some pretty dark characters in his menagerie. There's Moloch, the owl god, who appears in what Thomsen describes as "an occult generator," featuring symbols from stories on the topic. Moloch was a demon on the counsel of Hell, and villagers sacrificed their children to him.
"Sometimes I worry I'm giving voice to certain things I wasn't meaning to," he says.
Despite being something of a cynic when it comes to any kind of religion, including New Age spirituality, Thomsen has nevertheless been drawn to these mysteries. "I think I'm trying to figure it out," he says. His work, especially the pieces created for this show, is a way to explore the need for mysteries.
A mainstay of the Twin Cities art scene, especially at Rogue Buddha Gallery, Thomsen has in recent years been broadening his scope, exhibiting his work beyond Minnesota in various groups shows on the East Coast. His upcoming solo event here in Minneapolis is a chance to see his work in a whole new light.
For October's "Mystery School," Thomsen is getting the Public Functionary treatment. The entire space of the northeast Minneapolis gallery will be transformed around his intricate sculptures, turning the exhibition into an overall experience.
As a curator, Public Functionary co-director Tricia Khutoretsky is interested in re-contextualizing an artist's work. "Public Functionary is about re-imagining," she says. "Take someone like Michael Thomsen, who is known for very dark work. We're going to see it a little more mainstream."
Rather than using dark lighting, which usually cloaks Thomsen's pieces at exhibitions, Khutoretsky is interested in lightening up the space, making the it more accessible to the audience. She's interested in creating an entry point for people who aren't familiar with the artist, while also asking people who know Thomsen's work what would make this feel like the next step for him.
As for Thomsen, he's not trying to make statements or poke fun of anything with his mysterious subject matter. "It's the pageantry and energy of the whole thing, good and bad," he says. "I'd like to expand on the pure essence of it." 0x00E7
Michael Thomsen: Mystery School
Opening Saturday, October 3
1400 12th Ave. NE, Minneapolis, Through October 31