PRINT May 2022

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Tompkins H. Matteson, Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692, 1855, oil on canvas, 39 × 53".

THAT AMERICA IS HAUNTED—by the specters of its genocidal and racist histories; by the lingering ghosts of personal and national trauma; and by the aura emanating from the unrelenting desires of its citizens to seek connection with the otherworldly, be it through séances or extraterrestrial contact—is certainly no secret. Indeed, in a country obsessed with the paranormal, one might well wonder why it has taken so long for that fixation to trickle from popular culture into the museum. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it is a complicated and messy subject, especially for a discomfited art world that has relegated interest in the supernatural to the intellectual periphery for ages. But times are changing, and “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” provides a long-overdue foray into this unruly, fascinating terrain. Although innumerable exhibitions have dealt with some aspect of esotericism, especially lately, this vast survey, which views its material through what Robert Cozzolino, the show’s curator, terms an “empathy lens,” breaks new ground in presenting the paranormal as a historical subject of wide-ranging importance and, perhaps most significantly, in forgoing any condescension toward or suspicion of the topic in favor of a more respectful examination of the exhibited artists and their beliefs.

Martin Johnson Heade, Gremlin in the Studio, ca. 1865–75, oil on canvas, 9 1⁄4 × 13".

Cozzolino’s selection of artworks and cultural artifacts reflects myriad voices, periods, and artistic traditions that engage with what he calls “the spectral imagination.” In the accompanying catalogue, he writes, “To understand the supernatural, if that is possible, one needs to let go of the methods and tools that precisely define or rigidly contain, welcoming fluidity, ambiguity, and the blurring of boundaries. Its natural state is liminal.” This embracive attitude allows works across a plethora of categorical divides to converse with one another.

Rachel Rose, Wil-o-Wisp, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes 6 seconds.

The exhibition begins with the overriding theme “America as a Haunted Place” and predictably includes the delightfully spooky painters Charles Burchfield, John Quidor, and Albert Pinkham Ryder alongside lesser-known artists and oddities such as Martin Johnson Heade and his canvas Gremlin in the Studio, ca. 1865–75, which depicts the titular creature—a spidery, spindly-legged, crimson-colored thing—gazing at the viewer from beneath a painting of a landscape perched atop a balancing device. The work is an eccentric departure from Heade’s typical renderings of orchids and hummingbirds. Elsewhere, our nation’s mythic brush with witchcraft is touched upon with Tompkins H. Matteson’s histrionic painting Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692, 1855 (which only appeared in the Toledo Museum of Art’s staging of the show), and Rachel Rose’s eerie single-channel video Wil-o-Wisp, 2018, which follows the practices and ultimate persecution of the seventeenth-century mystic and healer Elspeth Blake. “National and Personal Haunting” makes for a powerful subcategory, addressing the painful and persistent specter of anti-Black racism and violence, featuring contributions by Glenn Ligon and Alison Saar, among others. Perhaps one of the most affecting works in this grouping is Whitfield Lovell’s remarkable installation Visitation: The Richmond Project, 2001, depicting a humble domestic interior replete with vintage objects that pays homage to the African American community of Richmond, Virginia’s Jackson Ward, a cultural and economic hub that was once referred to as the “Harlem of the South.” Sensitive conté-crayon portraits, sourced from historical photographs, are drawn on salvaged-wood walls and act as ghostly witnesses to our collective memories and history. 

Tony Oursler, Dust, 2006, fiberglass, digital video projection (color, sound, 12 minutes 9 seconds). Installation view, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2022.

In a country obsessed with the paranormal, one might well wonder why it has taken so long for that fixation to trickle from popular culture into the museum.

“Apparitions” is another theme; here, artists strive to find a visual language for portraying uncanny encounters with ghosts. Shrewdly included are works by the Surrealist painters Gertrude Abercrombie, Helen Lundeberg, and Dorothea Tanning, all known for incorporating mediumistic practices such as automatic drawing into their art. This brings us to my favorite section, “Channeling Spirits/Ritual,” which displays works and artifacts that were either meant to directly assist communication with the unseen or were created as a result of such contact. There is an impressive sampling of channeled drawings and paintings, many of which have rarely or never left Spiritualist camps, ranging from abstractions to full-on portraits of spirit guides or the deceased. One spectacular arrangement provides a rare glimpse into the world of mediumship, showing a mannequin wearing a séance robe while seated at a table with a Ouija board and planchette. The undeniably spooky tableau nevertheless takes the practice out of the realm of Hollywood horror films and firmly places it in America’s religious history.

Mannequin wearing Louise Parke’s ca. 1895–1905 séance robe with ca. 1890s Kennard Novelty Company Ouija board and planchette, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2022.

“Supernatural America” ends with “Plural Uni-verses”—a logical extension of the exhibition’s subject matter into the cosmos and our desire for contact with other dimensions. Here are the spaceship photographs of George Adamski, alongside items from the personal collection of musician, artist, and poet Sun Ra and works by Paulina Peavy (which she created with her alien spirit guide, Lacamo); Romanian UFO painter Ionel Talpazan (aka Adrian DaVinci); and Prophet Royal Robertson. Near the end of this extensive survey is Howardena Pindell’s awe-inspiring M64, 1982, a disk-shaped canvas collage whose richly textured surface comprises a plethora of materials, including paint, powder, postcards, and glitter. Named after Messier 64—the spiraling, sparkling Black Eye Galaxy, which is roughly seventeen million light-years away—it inspires us as we depart to contemplate how limited our human perceptions of this world and everything that surrounds it really are. 

George Adamski, Space Craft Releasing Saucers (Scouts), March 5, 1951, 10:30 AM, 1951, gelatin silver print, 4 × 4 7⁄8". 

“Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” is currently on view (through May 15) at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Susan L. Aberth is the Edith C. Blum Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, where she teaches courses on Latin American religious art, outsider art, Surrealism and a variety of esoteric topics including alchemy, Freemasonry, and spiritualism.