Art

The Allusive, Improvisational Artworks of Thaddeus Mosley

The formal aspects of Mosley’s work have been thoroughly considered over the years, perhaps at the expense of exploring symbolism in his individual works.

Installation view of Thaddeus Mosley at Karma, NY (all images courtesy of Karma, New York)

Thaddeus Mosley’s eponymous exhibition at Karma is the nonagenarian artist’s first with the gallery. A selection of 23 of Mosley’s wood sculptures, from 1996 to the present, fills Karma’s three spaces. Mosley’s favored materials are walnut and cherry wood, his palette deep auburns and browns. His oft-mentioned influences include Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, and Alberto Giacometti, and art from the cultures and kingdoms of Bamum, Dogon, Baoulé, Senufo, Dan, and Mossi. Mosley is a serious jazz fan, and he notes in the exhibition’s press release that his sculptural process, like jazz, rests on improvisation: “I never know exactly what I’m doing. That’s also the essence of good jazz.”

Installation view of Thaddeus Mosley at Karma, NY. Bottom left: “Masked Extension” (2011)

The formal aspects of Mosley’s work have been thoroughly considered over the years, as have the influences of Noguchi and jazz, but perhaps at the expense of exploring symbolism and allusions in individual works. In “Propelled Simulation” (2001), for instance, a narrow railroad switch points upward, while a wood component below suggests a trigger. Together these parts recall a gun. In “Masked Extension” (2011), what could be a nose on an abstracted figure also seems phallic; “Enclosure” (2006) suggests the opposite — a vaginal interior. And in “Geometric Plateau” (2014), two half-shell forms, evoking heads or hats, face each other atop a beam, with a large vertical shape in between, suggesting a barrier to their communication. 

Installation view of Thaddeus Mosley at Karma, NY. Left: “Propelled Simulation” (2001)

In the exhibition catalogue Mosley states, “I try to make things that generate their own spirituality so that people might feel something about it. What presence is to make something have a life of its own — the alchemy of turning something natural into something alive.” This is a profound statement about the potential of the human hand to transform and create anew from the natural world. It also implies that viewers should explore their unique interpretations of individual works. Mosley has had deep, lifelong engagements with the city of Pittsburgh, its artistic community, and its local wood. While his oeuvre has rightly been read as an array of improvisations on archetypal modernist forms, his body of work deserves to be further explored with an eye toward its complex symbolism.

Installation view of Thaddeus Mosley at Karma, NY. “Geometric Plateau” (2014)

Thaddeus Mosley is scheduled to continue at Karma (188 East 2nd Street and 172 East 2nd street, Manhattan) through June 7.

Editor’s note: Please note that Karma is currently open by appointment only due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Discussions around art and culture remain important during this time, but we encourage readers to practice social distancing and self-isolation in an effort to mitigate against the outbreak. The exhibition can also be explored virtually.

Update: Since publication, this review has been updated to include the new closing date of the exhibition (June 7, not April 26). 

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