"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." Even if you're not a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan, it's hard not to find some truth, both universal and personal, within that quote. It's the opening line of "The Call of Cthulhu," a tale the Providence writer penned in 1926 that became arguably his most famous work, and an apt epigram for the reverent and impressive show "Lovecraft: A Darker Key," at Sanctuary Tattoo and Gallery.
'FROM THE MOON' Graphite work by Tom Brown.
Like reliefs in some very dark church, the inspired creations of 14 artists frame images of this vast literary world. Among some 50 works are vividly inked portraits of the hybrid races of Innsmouth, a cartographical sketch of the writer's Dream Lands, and multiple resin statues of the Cthulhu figure itself. Materially diverse and conceptually unexpository, the assembly treats this fantasy world as a fact, which seems to be consistent with Lovecraft's writing. "The Call of Cthulhu" is less a shocking horror story than an assemblage of eerie, disarticulate data illuminating an otherwise unimaginable world. Viewers, particularly those who haven't read Lovecraft, might look at "A Darker Key" the same way: as a richly involved visual glossary of profoundly alien terms.
One of the show's pleasures is finding the aesthetic differences an immersion in those terms inspires in these artists. Drawings by Max Leon and Dave Stelmok relish in the monstrosity of the material; others by Brandon Kawashima and Tom Brown abide an iconographically dark pictorial order; while Michelle Souliere and Eric James Pomorski (the latter, subtly, in print photography) project scenes that merely hover around the edges of a Lovecraftian ethos.
Lovecraft's great knack was in constructing large, meta-referential fantasy worlds often built from their intersections with human life. As his still-growing legion of fans attests, his oeuvre beholds a cosmology about as great as Tolkien's. (And if it hasn't yet exploded into a major motion picture series, give it a few years.) Of course, there are substantial differences (indeed, Lovecraft's supporters might say it's like comparing the Beatles to Oasis): born two years apart, his English counterpart was still writing into his 70s while Lovecraft died young at 46. But unlike Tolkien's parables, Lovecraft's work resists easy moral classification. His stories contained forces of evil, oddity, monstrosity, deformity, and simply alien, but they didn't exist to be triumphed over by the good. They just existed.
There is no downplaying how crucial this was. During an overwhelmingly staid Christian era — in Providence, no less — Lovecraft's stories effectively breached the dam of conventional, morally bound fiction in favor of flowing rivers of human imagination. And while some of his stories, it must be noted, might reflect or uphold the era's unfortunate general position of white supremacy, that sad fact seems peripheral to the significance of his work. The Lovecraft corpus has proven to be an excellent tool for artists yearning to break free from the conventional yoke; it's naturally a key component of modernist thought, and a fine reason for artistic celebration.