Thaddeus Mosley

The sculpture of Thaddeus Mosley, a self-taught black artist, seems to emerge from the heroic days of early Modernism. This is unsurprising—Mosley began to sculpt during the ’50s after being inspired by art he read about and saw at the Carnegie Museum. Sources that became and remain central to his work are Constantin Brancusi, Isamu Noguchi, and a number of anonymous African (and African-American) artists. These sculptors, Mosley notes, “are important to me because they confirm and extend what I do.” Brancusi’s work, he points out, developed in a similar fashion, absorbing African influences that brought out some aspect of his own inner being.

Mosley’s approach to his materials complements his conception of the nature of artistic influence: “My woods and stones and I generate themes together.” In practice, this involves a process of carving based on the Modernist precept that truth to materials yields both self-discovery and “authentic” form. Working in sycamore, walnut, and cherry wood, sometimes using stone from demolished buildings, Mosley makes large vertical and horizontal constructions. The surfaces of those that appeared in the Carnegie show are heavily scored and rippled, signs of his work with hammer and chisel. The best pieces on view were the simplest: Exit from Circle, 1996, a section cut from a circle of oak; Proximity, 1996, a pair of hollowed-out tree sections; and Cove for Chillida, 1994, a monumental construction crowned by a magnificently assertive form that resembles a hand reaching out to seize something.

While Mosley has carving skills and formal intelligence of the sort championed by Adrian Stokes and the young Ezra Pound, his work is uneven. The aesthetic power of several pieces is diminished by the seemingly arbitrary addition of stone bases; if Mosley got this idea from Brancusi, it was a mistake. The Source of All Gods and Superman, 1994, comes off as pretentious, and much of his quasi-representational sculpture is equally unconvincing. Mosley’s way of working, because it is concerned with the timeless, intrinsic qualities of his materials, does not lend itself to storytelling or political commentary. When he attempts illustration, as in Forest Plumage, 1996, or builds by accretion, he fails to attain the sense of inevitable order found in his finest work.

The Carnegie, I regret to say, crowded all twelve of Mosley’s large-scale constructions into a dark, partially partitioned space next to the cloakroom. The refurbished galleries upstairs (where a corporate collection of blue-chip contemporary art was on display under excellent overhead light) would have provided a more suitable setting. I suspect Mosley’s sculpture would appear yet more impressive if one could step back while viewing it. He was also ill-served by the catalogue accompanying the show, which contained a rambling, sentimental account of his life but no serious discussion of his art’s relationship to the now very distant Modernist era. A survey devoted to local minority artists of Mosley’s generation would be a much-needed contribution to Pittsburgh’s cultural and social history. But this exhibition was a good beginning.

David Carrier