Image 1. Hyman Bloom. “The Seance.” 1951.
A guest post by Leif Erik Bergerud.
“Have you ever experienced something you can’t quite explain? Have you ever wondered, ‘are we alone in the universe?’… How do artists visualize the intangible, the invisible, the unseen? What are the ways in which they attempt to convey sensory experiences of the paranormal? … What does a spirit look like? Does it have the semitransparent shape of a human body? Is it an orb of light? Can you see a living person’s spirit emanating from their body as an energy aura?”
These are some of the questions asked by the superb and arresting new exhibit Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art, now in its third and final stop at the grand, imposing Minneapolis Institute of Art. Previously it visited two other museums in the American Interior, in Toledo and Louisville, thus it will be left to the viewer (and reader) to wonder how such a dynamic, even seminal exhibit never made it to the coasts. Not that it needs to for validation, but one has to wonder how it was that our nation’s most vaunted museums didn’t see the obvious importance of this exhibit and reel it in. Because it’s hard to recall many other exhibits possessing this kind of voltage when it comes to the ability to rewire perceptions about the shape of art history in America. That’s because, through and through, it represents “a taking seriously” of experiences, influences, themes and ideas that for many decades have been discarded, ignored, or outrightly repressed in art history. In short, it’s an outsider exhibit that’s somehow found its way into the very institutions that previously would’ve denied its existence.
Is this a harbinger of things to come, not only in the arts but in wider culture? Hard to say, but after encountering work after work from one artist after another for whom supernatural and paranormal experiences and ideas have influenced, nourished, and invigorated their art, you can’t help but feel as if you are seeing a hidden cultural history being slowly uncovered. What’s more, since the exhibit’s mediums are so manifold – including painting, sculpture, film, drawing, even performance art (notably, a visual record of a landmark feminist performance art piece in 1975), as well as the written word in various forms – the vast implications raised tacitly and otherwise by Supernatural America go far beyond the visual arts.
The exhibit spans six large interconnected rooms, each with a different thematic frame, in what by the end comes to feel something like a haunted (art) house all its own. One is reminded of Foucault’s notion of heterotopias: spaces that disclose themselves as qualitatively different than most ‘everyday’ spaces in which alternative forms of subjectivity, signification and knowledge can become manifest. But one can also view the exhibit not just as an “other space” but as a place where time seems different. Two of the three occasions I visited were midday – yet every time it felt like night to me once I was inside. Is there a link between the nocturnal and the widening of the aperture of what we will grant as real? It appears there is a rich history attesting to this, from van Gogh, who felt that “the night is often more alive and richly colored than the day,” to Art Bell, remarking to The Washington Post: “There is a difference in what people are willing to consider, daytime versus nighttime.”
It all starts with an outstretched, ghostly hand. It’s a video projection from above onto a wall as you enter, but it seems as if it’s coming right out of the wall itself; stretching towards you with curiosity at certain times, while at other times seeming more urgent – as if it’s doing all it can to break into the world we know. Occasionally it pushes against a stretchy translucent membrane, as if this barrier alone separates the living from the dead. It’s an effective work to start with – it slows you down as you approach it, even lightly knocks you back – and it is also a quietly daring one suggesting that the path ahead will actually take such outsider-type experiences seriously. The show’s overall approach might be called a phenomenological one in so far as it sets out to inhabit the supernatural experiences themselves from a sympathetic point of view, while mostly eschewing the urge to come to decisive conclusions about causation. In this way it is a kind of re-thinking of the paranormal; of giving it a second, this time genuine, consideration.
After the bravura opening with the outstretched hand, you turn a corner, suddenly the space opens up and you’re inside the first room. Immediately appearing on your left is a painting of the Headless Horseman in pursuit of Ichabod Crane from John Quidor in 1858. Although the ghostly hand at the entrance is recent (Tom Friedman’s “Wall,” 2017 ), Quidor’s rendition of the central event in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is our first clue that many of the works ahead, especially in the first four rooms, are from roughly the Civil War up to 1960. That’s not to say that the exhibit is exclusively in this time frame; it isn’t, and some of its most striking inclusions are from the past few decades. But it does suggest there was a wider window of acceptability towards the supernatural and paranormal in this earlier period than would be the case in the final decades of the twentieth century. The prominent involvement, however, of works from recent decades suggests this window of acceptability may once again be expanding.
Within this first room – titled “America as a Haunted Place” – we encounter a varied range of works that effectively begin a sort of slow transfiguration of iconic American landscapes: the open road (Grant Wood, “Death on the Ridge Road,” 1935), rolling agricultural fields (Andrew Wyeth, “Christmas Morning,” 1944) and of course the abandoned house (Charles E. Burchfield, “Haunted Evening in Spring,” 1947). Interestingly enough, in this first room all of the locations where otherworldly happenings occur are rural, or at least outside of urban centers; a theme that, while unremarked upon in the exhibit materials, will continue throughout all six rooms.
This may have to do partially with the fact that rural environments provide an opportunity for wandering by oneself, outside the surveillance of crowds, and thus for allowing to come to pass experiences, communications, and modes of subjectivity that are otherwise blocked. In the case of Charles Burchfield’s haunted houses, he himself went exploring inside, as the descriptor of “Haunted Evening in Spring” reads: “Burchfield created numerous images of abandoned homes and coalmines in and around Salem, Ohio. Their histories, and later abandonment, made them appear as though transformed by spirits. Soaking up the eerie atmosphere, he thrilled in the danger his adventures posed. He said, ‘The chances I took were idiotic – really is a wonder I escaped without serious injury or death – However, it was fun at the time.’”
Here we get a first glimpse at what will become a repeated theme throughout: rather than works created about supernatural and paranormal conceptions from the secure distance of a secular, rational, disinterested studio, this exhibit includes work after work of artists who went out there (or in there, as in the case of Burchfield, et al.) and then came back to tell the tale of what they encountered via painting, drawing, film, or whatever medium. Of course, you only learn this if you carefully read the descriptors which accompany each work. I’m not sure I have ever visited an exhibit where the descriptors played such an important and deeply enhancing role. This fact contributes to the distinctive feeling of the exhibit as unusually varied: for on the one hand the show clearly has a kind of bombast and yet on the other hand it rewards and even requires close attention to detail, a willingness to move slowly, and the ability to read patiently.
Leaving the first room now for the second, we are initially greeted by what looks to be a white sculpture of a wounded child holding a small tree branch aloft. Perhaps it’s an angel of sorts? Yet in the arena of otherworldly spirits it can often be hard to tell angels from their opposite. And as we learn more about this strange figure it turns out that it is in fact the latter of the two. Titled “Cotton Demon” by Alison Saar (1993), its descriptor reads in part: “Cotton Demon came from an installation Saar created to explore the role of agricultural spirits and the relationship between enslaved Africans and the American landscape. Author bell hooks suggested that the sculpture flips ‘the image of whiteness as pure and innocent’ […] By making these figures, Saar noted, she is developing ‘constructive ways of facing tragic, painful experiences. And that’s how the slaves survived all that pain – through creating, by making music, dance, poetry. […]”
Saar’s “Cotton Demon” is perhaps the most powerful piece in this second room; a room that’s titled “National and Personal Haunting.” The room’s description is seen in its entirety below:
Pausing for a moment, while Supernatural America is impressive, it’s necessary to not be blind to its shortcomings, and in this second room we must admit we’ve run right smack dab into one when the on-the-wall descriptor reads, “We live in a nation where forgetting the traumas of its origins – enslavement, genocide, violence from the battleground to the family home – is a daily way of life…” In all candor, this the only time the exhibit flirts with devolving into the kind of obfuscating language game that’s by now become the trademark of the professional managerial class. Given that many of the works in the exhibit were made prior to 1960, one could be forgiven for wondering if this statement was written prior to 1960, too; for you’d need to be living in another century, another country, or be spectacularly ignorant to believe that today in the US “we live in a nation where forgetting the traumas of its origins… is a daily way of life.” For anyone still capable of honest reflection, it is quite clear that for many years now the exact opposite of this has been the case; for years we’ve been not only reminded but asked to devoutly reflect, with a glum countenance, on precisely these originary traumas.
At this historical juncture, it is quite possible that no other country in the history of the world has so exquisitely, exhaustively, and systematically fixated on its own historical misdeeds for so long. And while this was once a sober necessity which produced real progress, by this point in the year 2022 the returns are not only diminishing, in many cases they are reversing. In turn, what was once courageous has become careerist. Put bluntly: continuing to rub salt in national psychological wounds because we can’t figure out how to truly heal them is so far from brave it is the opposite. All of which means it would have been far more honest for the curators to give voice to the fact that something other than “awareness” and performative self-flagellation will be needed for future healing. They might’ve asked if the methods initially deployed to exorcise our national demons have slowly morphed into ways to exercise them instead; they might’ve asked if our national demons continue to return not because we are ignorant of the traumas that generated them, but because we can’t figure out how to create the requiems they require.
Wavering now at the point where the second room ends and the third commences, we see an air-conditioner-sized machine of some sort mounted to the wall. First impressions suggest it might be an elaborate device for analyzing blood, or perhaps measuring barometric pressure.
Both guesses turn out to be incorrect. Instead, it is quite literally a spiritual machine: a machine designed to not only detect but to be able to be “used” by ghosts, spirits, and the like. Lengthily titled “His Minerals – In his one bedroom house he left behind his collection of minerals and the last batch of incense that he crafted,” the work is by Fernando Orellana (2012). Part of a larger series of “sculptures” by Orellana, his comments on it include the following: “A few years ago I started making a series of machines that ghosts could use. Finding well used objects in estate-sales, I created robotic interfaces … with sensors that ghost-hunters use, like electromagnetic fields, temperature and infrared light detectors. The machines then continuously looked for fluctuations or patters in the readings, triggering the robotic interface if it determined that a paranormal event transpired. In this way, perhaps the dead could have the ability to use earthly items again.”
The third room, entitled “Apparitions,” describes its focus thusly: “What does a spirit look like? Does it have the semitransparent shape of a human body? Is it an orb of light? Can you see a living persons spirit emanating from their body as a colored energy aura? Most of the depictions of spirits in this gallery come from artists’ actual encounters, or are based on the experiences of their friends or family members. Taken together, they represent a broad approach to depicting ghosts, sometimes relying on artistic conventions or literary sources, and other times finding wholly new ways to illustrate an experience with the unknown. […]”
As in the room before, the figure awaiting our entry into the third room appears to be a child. Although different than its predecessor, this child also harbors something more than is initially apparent. Titled “Double Portrait of the Artist in Time,” by Helen Lundeberg (1935), our initial impression of the innocent child is undercut by its odd shadow, which would be more fitting of an adult instead. It turns out this shadow is a “connector” between the artist as a child and as an adult woman. As the descriptor notes: “The two are connected by a long human-like shadow that appears to emanate from the child’s body. Both images represent the artist […] Through the living shadow, the two are connected across time and space…” Among other questions, this raises the specter of whether one’s shadow might be regarded as more real than the body which casts it – a question which connects to a lingering topic in the history of art concerning whether darkness or light is primary. Philosopher of culture Mark C. Taylor probes this node in a notable section worth quoting in full from his recent genre-defying, virtuoso Seeing Silence:
My early work with black-and-white photography persuaded me that nothing is ever simply black or white – everything is a different shade of gray. As important as the forms and shapes is what occurs or does not occur between them. While the nuances of the interplay of black and white create contrasting images, pure white and pure black are not so much colors as something like the colorless silence from which articulate forms emerge. Everything we see or don’t see and hear is formed, deformed, and reformed by a play of shades and shadows that creates a penumbra surrounding whatever can be figured. Commenting on the French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, Julian Bell asks, “What is a shadow? Nothing in itself, you might say: a mere local lack of light, in a space that is otherwise lit up. Light, which allows us to see and know the world, is the normal precondition for picturing things. Cast shadows may help us interpret a picture by indicating where light comes from and where objects stand, but if you survey art history, you will find the majority of painters giving them minor parts at most. A minority, however, turns these assumptions upside down, treating shadow as the preexistent condition of light…” [italics mine]
What would it mean to actually see one’s shadow, one’s trace, as more real than one’s body? If you were to compose an interdisciplinary taxonomy of how “shadow” shows up across various fields of study, what would you find? If one were to teach a course on shadows what might be included on the reading list? Is it possible to build an entire program of study around shadows? Lundeberg’s painting, read together with Taylor’s ruminations, elicit these questions, and more.
As we move past this striking work and turn to our right, we see what might be termed the only two works distinctly rooted in a given religious tradition. They are Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water” (1907) and Ethel Isadore Brown’s “Vision of St. John at Patmos” (1898). Both present religious vision as bright but diffuse, as if taking their cue from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ famous poem “God’s Grandeur” (1877) which opens with the lines “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”
Across the room from these two paintings is the second and final painting from Andrew Wyeth to be included in the exhibit – “The Revenant” (1949). The work has the ethereal quality of a mid-day vision in a seaside town, something Wyeth seems to have known about first hand. The work’s descriptor notes: “Revenant’ means ‘one who returns after death or a long absence.’ Wyeth’s ghostly self-portrait relates to many aspects of his personality and life story. Haunted by ghosts, he lived with the histories of the places he inhabited and was preoccupied by the traumatic events of the nation’s past, in particular the Civil War and World War I. […]”
Many other works in this room merit attention – especially Gertrude Abercrombie’s dynamic, evocative pair “Strange Shadows” (1950) and “Search for Rest” (1951) – yet move on we must.
Into the fourth room now, “Imagining the Unseen,” exploring “how artists depict magic, psychic experiences, and altered states emanating from supernatural contact. Some artists have reported new sensory perceptions after such experiences – they can hear colors or see sound.”
Amongst the most striking works in this room are two from Latvian-born American artist Hyman Bloom: “The Séance” and “The Medium,” both from 1951. Here again in the descriptor we read of an artist whose renderings of the supernatural were preceded by personal experimentation:
Bloom spent his life seeking ways to expand his consciousness. He traveled widely, sought out occult philosophies, and moved within like-minded communities open to new experiences. These works convey his experience of taking part in seances (a communal ritual led by a medium to contact spirits). It reveals the depth to which he understood the visual language of the supernatural. In these and other artworks made after his experiences, Bloom included details such as hands joined to form a circle, the hazy atmosphere from candles or materializing spirits, a depiction of a medium in a trance state, apparitions emerging from the darkness.
The fifth and penultimate room (actually, two interlocking smaller rooms), titled “Rituals of the Spirit,” is filled not just with sculptures per se, but works often designed to solicit the presence of the otherworldly. Provocatively, the room’s thematic descriptor asks:
If you wanted to make an object to attract a spirit, what would it look like? Is it possible to combine materials in order to honor or welcome spirits? What materials might be used to transform someone else? Can objects or potions change, control, or otherwise influence our world? Many of the works in this room bring together materials, including bone, blood, glass, plants, metal, herbs, and other natural elements, in an effort to provide a place in which to honor ancestors, hold supernatural power, and connect with the spirit world. In some cases, artists made work for ritual, or that depict rituals…
Although one of the smallest of the six sections, this may be the most powerful. Every entry is notable, including Dario Robleto’s “The Common Denominator of Existence is Loss” (2008), which includes “skeletal hands and ancient [50,000 year old] bear claws… holding onto a ring made from elongated audio tape – of the earliest recording of the ticking of a clock – itself woven with a mourning ribbon. Robleto’s sculpture invites viewers to meditate on absence and presence, the ghosts of people and species that have gone before us, and the ways we try to conjure them in the present.” This room also contains a visual record of a landmark feminist art performance in 1975, “Interior Scroll” by Carolee Schneeman. This piece, more than any single artwork I can think of, viscerally makes the case for writing as a fundamentally bodily, instead of merely cognitive, activity. And perhaps no review of this exhibit would be complete without noting Tony Oursler’s “Dust, from the Thought Forms series” (2006), which is a large, ovular fiberglass structure on which film is continuously projected in a room where speakers are also used. Legitimately unnerving at first, it seems to be alive. (For anyone with a prankster spirit in the least, it should strike you that if you could somehow unwittingly install a version of this in a friend’s residence without them knowing, and then activate it in the wee hours after they had fallen asleep you would accomplish nothing short of one of the great practical jokes of all time.)
Image/Video 9. Tony Oursler. “Dust, from the Thought Forms Series.” 2006
Into the end, the concluding room: “Plural Universes.” For anyone interested in UFOs who has quietly waited through the first five rooms hoping for some inclusion of this persistent cultural phenomenon, this final room is the payoff for your patience. Here again, many of the artists included drew from personal experiences, including Romanian-born American artist Ionel Talpazan (Adrian DaVinci). His work “UFOs – Dedicat for Peace” (1999), which blends words in a way that integrates the childlike with the journalistic, was inspired by a childhood experience with a UFO. In the descriptor next to the work we read that “Ionel Talpazan had a formative childhood experience with a UFO that changed his life. Memories of it would follow him to New York and fuel his ideas about interplanetary beings and spacecraft… The complex schematic cross-section of a UFO [in this work] may be based on the one he experienced as a child. He was haunted by the sensation caused by the ship’s brilliant blue light overhead; that seems to be shown in this drawing at the base of the spacecraft.” This last room also possesses some of the earliest photos of UFOs, taken in the years around 1950 by Shell R. Alpert and George Adamski.
On leaving the museum you may notice that an important but obscured aspect of Supernatural America are its internal contradictions and unresolved tensions, which often but don’t always work in its favor. Perhaps the most salient and consequential of these is between the secular and the religious, or more precisely, between what the Philosopher Charles Taylor termed the “immanent frame” and its opposite(s). This tension can be seen in the exhibit’s implied questions, such as: how should we account for experiences such as hauntings and visitations? Ought they be seen as something legitimately otherworldly and thus beyond the material realm, or should they rather be interpreted in an entirely rational, secular, material way? While the exhibit mostly sides with the former of these options, at a few points it seems to want to have it both ways with the effect being it sometimes feels like it’s in danger of losing its footing. What would have alleviated this problem is if it would have openly grappled with, which is not to say tried to answer, these questions. It’s a shame the curators didn’t because this is rich terrain, for in examining the relationship between the supernatural and the secular one is made aware of what Gauri Viswanathan observes in “Secularism in the Framework of Heterodoxy,” notably that “secularism, in defining itself against religion, has contributed to homogenizing religion’s variegated history.” This history, she notes, “nonetheless continues to exert influence in subtle, oblique ways that escape the secular understanding.” In our time, when debates related to religion and culture continue to rage on both Twitter and the best-seller list, recovering a better sense of religion’s varied dimensions and abiding presence is crucial.
Still, Supernatural America is one of the most vital and important exhibits of the year, not only because of everything it shows, but also because of something it declines to disclose outright: in its curation is an implied vision of art which resists the cynicism of our times, refuses to reduce art to politics, and sees the astonishing in human experience as a still open-ended point of inquiry rather than a case closed certainty. This marks the show as defiant, and in this one may recall Irish poet Brendan Kennelly’s famed line from The Book of Judas, “If you want to serve the age, betray it.”It’s because of such a vivifying, trend-defying spirit of defiant betrayal that visitors encounter something all too rare in the arts today: serious, enduring enchantment.
Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art is on view through May 15, 2022.
The book version of the exhibit (Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art) is published by the University of Chicago Press. Although there are key differences between it and the exhibit, it is a largely faithful and undeniably accomplished work.
Leif is a writer, actor, and doctoral student at Columbia University (Religion and Culture). In November 2022 he directs the premiere of “Blowback,” a new play touching on some of the themes in this review. Debut performances are in Phoenix (Nov. 16, 17) and Denver (Nov. 20).