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All Her Dark Places: The Visionary Art of Nancy Ogilvie

 Nancy Ogilvie 'Beasts' (2014) acrylic on wood (47''x 42'') Museum of Outsider Art Collection (Mansonville, Qc)

 

Galerie Robert Poulin (Montreal)
February 18 - March 30, 2020

By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, February 2020

"That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die."

-- Abdul Alhazred, The Necronomicon [1]

“Ultimate truths are to be attained, if at all, in some immediate way: by vision rather than by ratiocination.”

-- E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison [2] 

I.

Montreal Outsider artist Nancy Ogilvie has named the darkness in our nature. Her paintings resonate with a sense of disquiet, jeopardy and fertile squalor. They seem to incarnate a radical Other, the so-called ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ (not the 2012 album by the Mickey Hart band) or the sacred mystery that repels. Here, the overwhelming nature of the numinous emerges into the foreground and holds us in its grasp, making us tremble in nameless reverie. 

Instead of terraforming her alien landscapes, she has spawned hinterlands of sprawling spinal forests and membraneous labyrinths in paintings that hint at nameless horrors existing just beyond our tidy notions of human order and sanctity, trying to claw their way in from Outside in order to swallow us whole.   

Her strange viscous landscapes evoke pure synaptic evil; auratic, their agglomerations of monstrous Otherness in spidery neural nets threaten to subsume us altogether. They call to mind the malignant primeval force emanating from the place called Maquineanok, the Place of Burning where the ancestral woods are deepest and least penetrable, in T.E. D. Klein’s masterwork of supernatural horror The Ceremonies (1984).

The author says of the entity in question: “It was outside nature, and alone. It had no name.” [3] This reminds us of the unnameable entities that populate Ogilvie’s painting world.

Nancy Ogilvie 'Red Land #2' (2013) acrylic on wood (24'' x 20'')

Consider her Red Land #1 (2013), a remarkable painting in which the trunks and limbs of the trees take on grotesque shapes. The work features a spider-or scorpion-like entity with fleshless black and toothed jaw bursting out of the backdrop, a tiny human witness or enabler crouching to the side, and a pack of were-beasts on the prowl in the foreground. Even the roses have teeth here, and they are ready to tear flesh apart with avidity.

Ogilvie’s reticulated undergrowths are dank, unhallowed nests for monstrous entities that crawl out of the depths of the collective unconscious with alacrity. Like invidious parasites we cannot escape, they take root in our minds.

Her ashen groves are alive with sultry menace. She puts a name and a meme to the source of our anxieties and sleepless nights and references another writer who was also an inspiration to Klein, I mean the late great savant of the weird tale, Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937).

Ogilvie captures the prevailing spirit of Lovecraft's literature of supernatural horror; namely, its very cosmicism, with conviction and brio. Her work seems to evince the view that ordinary life as we generally experience it is but a thin veneer that cloaks an unassimilable reality so alien and malevolent that perusing it overmuch would result in the affliction said to visit upon readers of that infamous spectral play The King in Yellow: utter madness. [4] 

Lovecraft’s myth-cycle lives on. He was always concerned with the fragility of mankind in the face of unfettered cosmic and anarchic horrors. He developed the "Great Old Ones", a cohesive pantheon of omniscient deities from deep space who once tyrannised the planet and who have since fallen into a deathlike sleep from which they may awaken only when summoned up from the abyss in eldritch ceremonies. These deities now exist 'outside' the comforting ‘parameters’ of the space-time continuum, waiting to return.

Lovecraft made these entities the subject of many of his most glorious weird tales, perhaps most compellingly his "The Call of Cthulhu" (1928) with a direct reference to the Lord of Darkness. Such entities assume physical forms that the human mind simply cannot process or digest. Just viewing them induces insanity, as is the case with reading the aforementioned The King in Yellow. [5]

According to the Cthulhu Mythos, the Outer Gods are beholden to Azathoth, the "Blind Idiot God", Among the Outer Gods present at Azathoth's court are the entities called "Ultimate Gods" in Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, including Shub-Niggurath, the "Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young", Yog-Sothoth and others. Consider Nyaghoggua, a smudged, black Kraken-or-spider-like entity that lurks in Outer Darkness and bears a remarkable family resemblance to Ogilvie’s figuration. Or Nyarlathotep, the "Crawling Chaos" and avatar of the Outer Gods, which exists as the incarnation of space and functions as a mediating force between the other deities of the pantheon and the myrmidons of demonic cults. No exaggeration to suggest that they all enjoy starring roles in Ogilvie’s feverish productions.

There is no evidence that Ogilvie is a practising occultist or even a maven of dark fantasy, but her treatment of the Other here segues well with the extant discourse on demonology and darkness. Consider works like Beasts (2014) and Revenants (2015). Her figures often take on the guise of alien, omnivorous, all-consuming arachnoid/insectoid intelligences on the prowl. 

Her imagination is volatile and unfailingly edgy in mien. This lends her work a decidedly elemental ethos and invokes a post-human consciousness. The vegetation in her paintings has a cocoon-like resonance, and the sense that what is lurking inside that vegetation is a vehicle not of sustenance but systemic annihilation.

Nancy Ogilvie 'Redland #1' (2013) acrylic on canvas (24''x 20'')

In paintings such as Redland #1 and Redland #2 (both 2013), Ogilvie essays landscapes neither terrestrial nor celestial, in which schematic figures frolic in some post-apocalyptic dreamtime. The conjuration of the figure suggests a sort of mental scrying or crystal-gazing, as though a window on another order of reality has been opened for a moment for our perusal. 

II.

The British occultist and ceremonial magician Kenneth Grant (23 May 1924 – 15 January 2011) was a devotee of Lovecraft’s fiction. He often references the work of Lovecraft and Arthur Machen – two writers whose work seems a phantasmatic index at the core of Ogilvie’s oeuvre -- as channelling occult emanations or presences in his Typhonian trilogies. Grant was also a lifelong champion of the work of Austin Osman Spare, a famous English occult artist who died in 1947. 

Grant believed that malevolent powers are trying to gain ingress into the dreams of human beings as a means of control and conversion. These entities – treated in the work of Lovecraft, Spare and now Nancy Ogilvie – are restless and incarnate and ambulatory. And hungry. 

Grant writes:

“Great Old Ones: Also known as the Ancient Ones. They are the hidden powers ruling this planet at the present time. The spells for communicating with Them are concealed in grimoires such as the Necronomicon, the Book of the Law, and the Wisdom of S’lba. The emissaries of the Old Ones are usually nameless, but members of Their race delegated to traffic with terrestrials have appeared to specially prepared individuals…for purposes of communicating certain keys to the Outer Gateways…..” [6]

Grant identified the forces as dynamic energies of consciousness – be it Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth – that shatter all vestiges of delusion and complacency.

In this respect, consider Ogilvie’s Beasts (2014) which dilates on the shadowy terror of incursions from the dark side. A beast with its vast feral gaping maw in the deep forest seems insatiable. She incarnates the Great Old Ones as cast members in her superbly realised cinematographic summonings.

III.

Nancy Ogilvie is a visionary artist of a particularly fertile and feverish persuasion.  Her work has a signature style in which Outer Darkness finds its perfect articulating medium in notions of self and Other, growth and decay, life and death, above and below.

It is a shame that her work is absent from a new exhibition of works on paper on view at the National Gallery of Canada (from November 29, 2019, to March 29, 2020) titled Beautiful Monsters in Early European Prints and Drawings (1450–1700). The exhibition presents nearly 70 rarely exhibited prints and drawings of anomalies in the natural order by 45 Renaissance and Baroque artists selected from the National Gallery of Canada collection.

Sundry demons appear in illustrations of biblical stories and accounts of the lives of saints. The works exhibited include Flemish artist Johan Wierix (1549–1620) and The Dragon Devouring the Companions of Cadmus, by the famous Dutch engraver Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617). This masterpiece, a collaboration between the engraver and the painter Cornelis van Haarlem (1562–1638), was produced in 1588 based on a painting by van Haarlem, now in the collection of The National Gallery, London. Ogilvie’s paintings are strikingly contemporary even as they hearken back to such works, suggesting that demons and demonology have existed at the heart of the Western painting canon for hundreds of years.

Ogilvie returns to the fundament with unnerving equipoise and singular fixity. That fundament is, of course, the numinous, as the theologian Rudolf Otto understood it -- the “Wholly Other” or what transcends the quotidian sphere and which “evades precise formulation in words. Like the beauty of a musical composition, it is non-rational and eludes complete conceptual analysis; hence it must be discussed in symbolic terms.” [7]

Otto dilates on the experience of the Numinous in terms of the Latin phrase, mysterium tremendum and discusses its three essential interwoven components: awfulness, and sheer energy. The numinous is something that is experienced as wholly other and completely outside our normal experience. There is also the element of fascination, which means that the subject of the numinous is effectively seized by it, and perhaps transformed if not transmogrified.

Similarly, Ogilvie’s paintings provoke disquiet because their terrors are less aesthetically pleasing than overwhelming in power and affect. Indeed, this artist’s appalling visions lead us over the edge of the familiar into uncommon, depraved worlds of the psyche and collective unconscious. She is a reliable and consistent conjuror of and witness to exotic and harrowing worlds far beyond the range of normal human perception. WM

Endnotes

1.   The Necronomicon, also known as the Book of the Dead and by its Arabic title of Kitab al-Azif, is a grimoire of great power that frequently figured in Lovecraft’s stories "The Hound" (1924) and numerous others. The grimoire dilates knowingly on the Old Ones and the spells necessary to raising them. He ascribed its authorship to Abdul Alhazred, a mad Arab who flourished in Damascus about 700 AD. This grimoire was  translated by the Elizabethan scholar Dr John Dee, into Greek, under the title of Necronomicon.

2.    E.R. Eddison, A Fish Dinner in Memison (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co, 1941.)

3.   T.E.D. Klein, The Ceremonies, (New York: The Viking Press), p. 3.

4.    See Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow (New York: F. Tennyson Neely, 1895).

5.   H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu was first published in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, in February 1928 and later in S. T. Joshi (ed.). The Dunwich Horror and Others (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1963.)

6.   See “Remembering Kenneth Grant’s Understanding of The Necronomicon Tradition” by Warlock Asylum https://warlockasyluminternationalnews.com/2011/02/18/remembering-kenneth-grants-understanding-of-the-necronomicon-tradition/

7.    Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; 2nd ed., 1950) [first published Das Heilige, 1917]


James D. Campbell


James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.
 

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