If you’ve ever whirled through 13th Avenue Northeast in mid-May, you’ve probably been inside the Rogue Buddha Gallery. And if you’ve ever been inside the Rogue Buddha Gallery, then you’ve definitely seen the work of Michael Thomsen.
Thomsen has become one of Art-A-Whirl’s most iconic artists. He’s a perennial presence in a premier gallery, showing every year in the Buddha since the gallery began participating in the annual art crawl in its current location, in 2004. You know his work: those dark carnival sculptures mounted on the wall, lurid with the glow of midway lights and the manic jumble of junk-drawer treasures. Each is a queasy mix of nostalgia and nightmare. You can’t look at one without hearing calliope music and shuddering at memories of “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
Together with the paintings of Buddha owner Nicholas Harper — haunting portraits of ashen-faced, stretchy-necked women — Thomsen’s work goes a long way in creating the creepy/sexy vibe that has made the gallery so popular. Harper owns several of Thomsen’s pieces and has said that he considers the artist an integral part of the Buddha’s identity.
“I’ve had several serious conversations with Michael about incorporating his work into the Rogue Buddha’s brand,” said Harper. “To me his art work really exemplifies what the gallery is about. It’s a combination of quality and craftsmanship. Basically, those wall sculptures are the epitome of what I dig.”
Son of the carnival
When Thomsen returns to the Rogue Buddha on May 14, for a partner show with artist Caitlin Karloczak, it will be his sixth Art-A-Whirl there. But the guy’s been showing work in the Northeast Arts District for almost a decade, ever since he floored the staff at Matchbox, the teeny coffee co-op on 2nd Street NE, in 2000 by selling a large abstract painting out of there for a couple thousand dollars.
It was a surprise success for a scraggly musician who never went to art school. Thomsen, who struggled with dyslexia as a child, didn’t make it to college. And the way he talks, it sounds like even early elementary school was a struggle.
“I kept getting into trouble for gluing together my building blocks,” he recalled. “I was making these castles that wouldn’t fall down. Even back then I was trying to make these sculptures.”
Thomsen was born in Austin, Minn., “in the shadow of the Hormel meatpacking plant,” as he writes in his artist statement. Growing up there in the late ’70s, the specter of small-town misfits haunted his childhood. His grandfather’s brother, Uncle Bill, owned and ran a traveling carnival, taking an outfit up and down the California coast. Thomsen recalls visiting the show once when it came to Minnesota and riding all the rides for free. He remembers having fun, but also a tinge of menace.
“They were a rough crowd,” he said. “You know, they’d carry guns. It was old-school. Uncle Bill had a special RV with a built-in safe. They were a really wild bunch.”
Thomsen’s other great-uncle was a famous auctioneer in the Midwest, traveling to truck stops and farm fields to help conduct livestock sales and estate liquidations. One of Thomsen’s first jobs, when he was only about 5 years old, was to help clean out huge farmhouses, scrounging up knick-knacks for the auction block.
“They’d take me up to an attic or maybe a sewing room, and say, ‘go through all these drawers, dump ‘em out, and separate the buttons from the thimbles, the lighters from the this-and-that.’”
Thomsen was fascinated. He’d end up forgetting what he was doing and pocketing things, finding the strangest treasures after he returned home. Many of these souvenirs wound up in some of his earliest pieces.
“There are these objects that have these crazy life histories and memories,” he said. “Like a chess piece that has been played with a billion times. Or a skeleton key. To bring all these things together in one piece of art can be really strange because they’ve gathered different life forces. It’s like providing an orphanage for objects. It’s a shrine kind of situation to the human experience.”
In his Northeast duplex, Thomsen shows off what looks like a miniature version of a Russian Orthodox church. He has meticulously built it from an old television box, chair legs and industrial sewing spindles. Upside-down wooden tops form the temple’s onion domes.
“This one is an experiment in baroque and myth,” says Thomsen. Baroque, because of the building’s intricate construction. And myth, because he plans to convert it into a fire-breathing monster, with a gargoyle head affixed to its front and a glowing red light in its belly.
“You’ll be able to look into its mouth and see the fire,” he says. Peering into “its hump” — the church — you’re able to see a lavish dollhouse interior, with a porcelain figurine of a woman posed near a set of wardrobe mirrors and a tiny gramophone.
It’s like something an eccentric toy maker might make, romantic but dark. Thomsen’s calling it “Chimera,” a reference to a mythical, mutated creature, and he intends it to be the centerpiece of his Art-A-Whirl show.
It’s a Chinese puzzle box of furniture pieces, brimming with the feel of old, mechanized children’s toys: carnival games, ancient pinball machines and arcades. It nicely sums up Thomsen’s aesthetic — and his personal lineage of misfit relatives somehow coming together to create Thomsen.
“It’s really become my beast,” he says.
Don’t miss it at the Rogue Buddha Gallery. “Science and Wonder” opens May 14.
With more than 500 artists participating in this year’s Art-A-Whirl, it’s not hard to get bogged down in huge studio buildings and far-flung galleries. We’ve compiled a short list of the very best Art-A-Whirl events so you don’t waste a minute of your weekend.
"The Slow Mirror and the Metronome"
For the third year in a row, Dave Salmela and his Creative Electric Studios crew are bringing back their floating gallery, a ramshackle houseboat squat that they fished out of the Mississippi a number of years ago. Docked behind the Sample Room restaurant, the boat will once again become an immersive philosophical environment, orchestrated this year by exhibition designer Joe Belk and artists Adam Burchard, Drew Peterson and Ted Quinn. Meant to be a physical build-out of the strange light play that happens on the river, entering the boat will be like “walking right into a reflection,” Belk says. The inside will be “a non-dimensional” place, all white and reflective, with a fish tank ceiling releasing a waterfall through the boat’s floor and into the river. A small carnival of live art will surround the installation, with films projected across the river onto huge movie theater screens, bands playing on floating docks and a sound collage filtering through hidden speakers bobbing out on the river. The boat was named Best Art Show of 2009 by City Pages, and this year promises to be even more spectacular.
Location: behind the Sample Room restaurant, 2124 Marshall St. NE
"The Age of Aquarius"
It wouldn’t be Art-A-Whirl without an Emma Berg-curated show at the hippest accounting office in town. This year, Berg’s programmed the Gallery at Fox Tax with a trio of artists with connections to the local underground music scene. Jesse Draxler, known for his sparse, high-design collage pieces, is a founder of Vigilante Justice, an experimental music and art night that most recently rocked the 501 Club in February. MCAD grad Katelyn Reece Farstad, of the riot noise band Tips for Twat, brings her DIY punk aesthetic to a series of mismatch-colored drawings, each featuring a cast of oddball cartoon characters. Josh Journey-Heinz, drummer of City Pages’ Best Rock Band of 2008, Knife World, will show a series of rock posters, zines and album covers that he made in the ’90s.
Location: the Gallery at Fox Tax, 503 1st Ave. NE
" Flocked: a wallpaper project"
Studio mates Nick Howard, Anna Tsantir and Vincent Murray have asked 30 of their artist friends to help wallpaper the 22-by-10 foot wall in their Casket Arts building work space. Each artist made a handful of two-dimensional work — prints, drawings, even multimedia — to be pieced together on the wall. The result is a dizzyingly complex wallpaper pattern. Participating artists include Terrance Payne, of Rosalux, David Petersen, of Art of This, Dan Ibarra, of Aesthetic Apparatus and Jessica Seamans of Landland.
Location: Casket Arts Carriage House, 1720 Madison St. NE, #203
"‘Location – Volume One’ book sale and signing"
After closing down his SELLOUT art gallery last March in the Northrup King Building, Ruben Nusz is on to his next endeavor: creating book-based experiences of contemporary art. Along with his partner Scott Nedrelow, Nusz is using Art-A-Whirl to launch Location, a series of fine art books that serve as art installations. Volume One features the work of Isa Newby Gagarin, a Guam-based artist currently making art about the moon, and its odd associations with the photographic process. The book includes several of Gagarin’s “moonprints,” prints she makes by exposing photo-sensitive paper to moonlight.
Location: the Thorp Building, 1618 Central Ave. NE, Suite 227
"Spain: My Perspective"
Bradley Royce and Rosi Kittsteiner run a gallery out of the first floor of their Northeast duplex, and every year it is the most charming and intimate stop of the Whirl. Removed from the bustle of 13th Ave. NE but not at all out-of-the-way, this home gallery feels like a trip to your aunt’s house, with homemade refreshments and chummy conversation. The art, though, is top-notch. Royce’s wooden cremation urns, shaped like mini-pagodas and painted in a pristine white, are always on display, as are Kittsteiner’s bleery, oil pastel landscape paintings. This year, Kittsteiner welcomes her brother Pablo Kittsteiner, a photographer living in Spain, to exhibit his snapshots of the Iberian Peninsula.
Location: 809 University Ave. NE