NORTHEAST PARK — Michael Thomsen is a hearse guy.
Thomsen’s current ride is a genteel black-and-silver Cadillac Brougham, its elongated rear compartment covered in a landau roof as plainly formal as a funeral director’s suit. On a crisp late-September afternoon, it cast its shadow on the curb in front of Public Functionary, the Northeast gallery where Thomsen was installing “Mystery School,” a solo show of his recent work.
Thomsen is best known for baroquely detailed assemblages crafted from salvaged furniture and thrift-shop trinkets, little altars to recycled Americana or cabinets of curiosity made to contain his obscure narratives. “Mystery School” captures the self-taught artist at a moment when he’s pushing his sculptural practice in new directions, lightening and streamlining his signature aesthetic ahead of what he said would be an even bigger shift.
Thomsen’s work has often expressed a kind of eerie absurdity. His sculptures, many lit from within, come to life in the flickering shadows. But he’s wary of being pigeonholed as a “goth” artist.
“I can’t get away from it,” he said. “I cause it.”
There is, of course, the hearse. The second Thomsen has owned in the past five years, it was parked just a few yards from the gallery’s loading dock, where warm sunshine cut through the autumn chill.
Thomsen has a utilitarian view on hearse ownership. Consider this: The vehicle was a showpiece, so it entered the used-vehicle market in pristine condition and with incredibly low mileage. An inveterate thrift-store troller, Thomsen actually makes good use of that rear storage space.
People will think what they want to think, but he makes his unusual vehicle sound more like a fancy station wagon than some macabre affectation. And Thomsen, noting his “hearse man” had a line on a newer-model Cadillac, seems likely to stick with the hearses for a few more years to come.
“You kind of become your own character over the years,” he said.
Still, Thomsen — and his artwork — are not done evolving. He credits Public Functionary’s Tricia Khutoretsky and Mike Bishop (director-curator and director-producer at the gallery, respectively) with helping to shepherd in a new phase, urging him to pare-back the florid detail of his assemblages and incorporate areas of flat, solid color.
“It helped me get unstuck,” he said.
In “Mystery School,” Thomsen delves into the culture, lore and symbolism of secret societies. He doesn’t discriminate between history and pseudo-history, finding inspiration in the supposed links between modern fraternal organizations like the Masons and Shriners and their legendary antecedents, from the Knights Templar to ancient cults, whose histories are often accentuated with myth.
His interest is in the glue that so often binds these organizations, real or imagined, together: the language of ritual and allure of hidden knowledge.
It’s something that has fascinated Thomsen since he was a boy. A grandfather on the Danish side of his family, Warren “Barney” Thomsen, belonged to the local Masonic Lodge and kept a small library of books of esoteric books at home. The younger Thomsen would sometimes poke around in the collection, flipping through books on meditation and self-improvement.
“It was like sci-fi to me,” he recalled.
He remembered, too, the strange disconnect between the ordinariness of pancake dinners at the local lodge and the odd details of the lodge, itself: the stage draped in velvet curtains, a closet full of blue and red robes and canes.
It’s the way these rituals develop, and also the way certain psychologically powerful symbols seem to be recycled throughout history, that interests Thomsen. He’s noticed the way these visual memes seem to stir something deep in our collective unconscious.
“Is there real magic in the world, or is it that we have all these ideas in the backs of our heads and we make the connections ourselves?” he asked.
It’s the kind of question that might be posed during a gathering of the Roma Key Club, an occasional dinner party-cum-secret society Thomsen started with a group of friends. Conversation around the table regularly dives into the rabbit hole of occult history.
So where does Thomsen come down on all of this? Is he a skeptic, or is he, too, seduced by the myster?
“Oh, I definitely am willing to believe,” he said.
Michael Thomsen: Mystery School
When: Through Oct. 31
Where: Public Functionary, 1400 12th Ave. N.E.