Columbo inspires new Nashville art exhibition

Columbo Helen Stewart
Dead Weight’s Helen Stewart will be the focus of a new art exhibition this September

There’s a wide world of Columbo fandom out there, and my bid to keep you up to speed on the latest developments takes us on a journey to Tennessee and a very intriguing art exhibition.

From September 1-October 4, visitors to the John C. Hutcheson Gallery at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee can look in on the ‘False Flags’ exhibition by artist Morgan Ogilvie – and keen Columbo fans may well recognise a familiar face from the series.

The face is that of Helen Stewart, a character immortalised by Suzanne Pleshette in Columbo Season 1 outing Dead Weight. A witness to the murder carried out by General Martin Hollister in his waterfront home, Helen’s account is disbelieved by her own mother and challenged by Columbo, who reports that a search of the General’s house has failed to show up a body or any sign of foul play. It is Helen’s reaction to Columbo that Morgan has captured on canvas and visitors to the False Flags exhibition will see eight variations of Helen’s face, each larger than life on 4×4-foot canvasses.

Morgan, a Tennessee native, earned her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts (CALARTS) in 2020 before returning to Nashville. I virtually caught up with her to find out all about her exhibition and what it was about the Helen Stewart character that so inspired her to put paintbrush to canvas.

Columbo Dead Weight

Morgan, can you tell us what it is it about this particular moment in Dead Weight that triggered your artistic endeavours?

Prior to creating this body of work, I was artistically investigating Rosemary’s Baby and this particular episode echoes some similar motifs, especially its emphasis on gaslighting. The paintings appropriate from the scene when Helen, the witness to a murder, explains to Columbo that she works with children and animals. She actually says “I know what I saw” in this scene, which is a crucial line because the entire episode is about one woman’s struggle to assert nothing less than the truth. It is also the moment when she shows him the indecipherable South American Llama she has fashioned out of clay. It is implied that, just as she sees this animal in a lump of clay, she was able to see a murder that never actually happened. 

Thematically, the notion that others are trying to “gaslight” this young woman for their nefarious aims could not be more timely. In this age of rampant disinformation, we can collectively identify with her predicament. Columbo later tells her she needs to believe in herself more. Her tendency to be underestimated in many ways mirror’s Columbo’s, so the interaction is rather poignant.

What do the paintings mean, and what type of reaction are you hoping to elicit from the onlookers?

I identify with Suzanne Pleshette’s character, and I am hoping viewers might as well. This series memorializes the precise moment our leading lady first doubts herself. I identify with the difficulty of knowing when to hold onto direct experience – and defend one’s admittedly fallible memory – and when to engage in more traditional scientific rigor. When do we listen to reason, and when do we listen to revelation? This image is an attempt to capture that moment where she realizes she doesn’t, as the saying goes, know what to believe.

Columbo Suzanne Pleshette
Morgan’s series memorializes the precise moment Helen Stewart first doubts herself

One critic describes our female lead as “an easily manipulated young divorcée.” Why is it her fault that no one is believing her story? In the classic Asch Conformity Experiment conducted in 1951, test subjects were (easily) manipulated into incorrectly stating that one line is longer than another to go along with the majority opinion. This collection of work’s implied thesis is that all of us may be more easily manipulated than we would like to think.

We surveil our portrait-sitter as she searches for elusive truth, while she too looks at us searchingly. Departing from the episode, in my series, we do not know what happened, but intuit that our subject finds herself in a twilight where distinctions between fact and fiction have forever faded. 

On a broader level, my mentor in graduate school was a fabulous painter and astute art critic named Thomas Lawson who is associated with the “Pictures Generation.” It was very natural for participants in this movement to “quote” or “appropriate” images from mass media, and recast them, thereby inviting new political, personal, and cultural meanings. I see this work as drawing on that tradition. 

Tell us a bit about the production of the paintings

Knowing that I wanted some of the paintings in this series smeared and less legible, I employed the help of my husband, Joel Rice (a big Columbo fan). I was concerned that I would be too careful in “messing up” the work. Most of the blurring created by hand is actually his imprint. I would leave him alone with the painting so that I would not overly influence this process. I work with my husband on a great deal of my work in regards to the concept, writing about the work, critiquing and so on. I will use him as a sounding board and we will go back and forth. Often there are enjoyable spirited marital arguments, but this is a really important part of the process and helps me to refine my vision.

Morgan Ogilvie False Flags
In the Warholian tradition, ‘False Flags’ features eight variations on a single image

What is your relationship with Columbo the series?

I come to Columbo from a love of mysteries. After earning my MFA just outside of Los Angeles in 2020, and living in the area for two years, seeing Columbo after this experience has been even more meaningful. The moment I saw this episode for the first time was in 2020 during the pandemic when I was watching more media than usual. The themes in Dead Weight fit so perfectly with my thesis work.

I was also very close with my grandmother Roxanne Williams, AKA “Roxy”, who was very much a colorful character who would have been right home at home in the Columbo universe. Like Peter Falk, she had a lot of New York cultural connections. As a result she often spoke with intonations not unlike Falk’s Columbo patois. Roxy was also involved in a low-level citizen’s crime fighting effort in which a local Presbyterian minister enlisted church ladies to surveil and disrupt a local Mafia-run gambling ring. This became a surprisingly good book, The North Avenue Irregulars, that one could easily envision as a Columbo episode (and in fact became a tepid Disney movie). So in a sense, watching Columbo is a way of communing with my beloved Roxy.

When not painting Suzanne Pleshette from Columbo, what type of artworks do you create?

Morgan Ogilvie False Flags

Through figurative oil painting on expansive canvases, my work examines sinister social forces as seen through the prism of “unreliable” female protagonists. These anti-heroines – such as Martha Mitchell, (wife of Nixon’s attorney general), who was slandered as the quintessential unreliable narrator, and Rosemary, from the Faustian-film Rosemary’s Baby – tend to agitate questions of accurate reality testing and delusion.

Using unexpected scale, claustrophobic cropping, and obsessive repetition, I create a suggestion of danger that takes place beyond the border of the painting, inviting the viewer to question what they think they know about these figures. 

What would Dale Kingston say about your exhibition?

He is into the snobbery and the market value of blue chip work more than the actual art. But if he had any taste, he’d absolutely love it and rank my pictorial sensibility alongside Matisse, Duchamp and Picasso in its potential to radically shift artistic paradigms for the next century. I wouldn’t trust him to represent me in a curatorial setting since he is, as you know, homicidal. But if he loved my work, admittedly, I would be so happy. I respect his critical faculties more than his criminal capabilities because he was, after all, thoroughly foiled by a rumpled little, tobacco-dependent lieutenant with a deceptively understated style.

Columbo Dale Kingston
“Why it’s frightful… good work, Morgan!”

What does your artistic future hold in store?

I am currently preparing for two solo shows, this Columbo show, and then in October one referencing Rosemary’s Baby. For the October show at Marnie Sheridan Gallery at Harpeth Hall in Nashville, I will be creating two paintings that are each 11 feet tall by 8 feet long – so working out the logistics and painting these is foremost on my mind.

Morgan Ogilvie’s ‘False Flags’ exhibition will take place at the John C. Hutcheson Gallery at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, from September 1-October 4, 2022. Keep up to date with Morgan’s work on her website, or on Instagram.

On behalf of all of us in the Columbo community, I wish Morgan well with her upcoming exhibitions. At the very least, I feel certain that the press will be kinder to her than they were to that ‘hack’ Sam Franklin. I’m expecting my invitation to the glitzy opening night bash any day now and hope to be in the company of such luminaries as Dale Kingston, Max Barsini and Harold Van Wick (who may even be wearing his ‘super’ digital watch).

I encourage any Columbo fans in or around the Nashville area to make a beeline for the exhibit to show their support for Morgan’s inspirational efforts. After all, it’s not every day you get the chance to attend a Columbo-themed art exhibit, is it?

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