MINNEAPOLIS — One of the spookiest objects in Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is a wearable reliquary, “Memorial for S.C. Washington” (c. 1789). It contains hair from a dead teenager, along with an image of her spirit breaking free from a tomb. The object exemplifies the ways that the exhibition — which includes over 150 works from the 18th century to the present, by artists who span all different backgrounds and cultures —elucidates dialogues between past and present, and between this world and realms beyond.
The exhibition avoids trivializing artists’ beliefs. One painting, “Precipitated Portraits of Lizzie, Mary and Christina Daugherty with Dr. Daugherty” (c. 1900), created as part of a seance with medium sisters Mary E. (May) and Elizabeth Snow (Lizzie) Bangs, credits “spirits” along with the Bangs sisters. The painting seems to be haunted. Similarly, ghostly double-exposed photographs by spirit photographer William H. Mumler likely catch the viewer’s breath as they did 150 years ago, when Spiritualism, the religious movement that posited the possibility of communication with souls of the dead, was in full swing.
These are all part of the exhibition’s first section, which contemplates the United States as a haunted place, encompassing US history and land, and the institution of slavery as foundational to this country.
Two visceral abstract heads by Jack Whitten, “Head 1” and “Form (3rd Set) 1” (both 1965), swirl in a fog. The artist believed they carried the spirit of Henry Wells, a freedman lynched in 1878. Painted in the Civil Rights era, they act as spiritual testament to protests against racist violence currently being waged around the country.
In her magnetic charcoal and chalk drawing “Acheron” (2016), named for the Greek god of the underworld’s river, Alison Saar depicts the African and diaspora archetype, and mythological water spirit, “Mami Wata” (Mother Water) standing up to her waist in water. In the river’s reflection, the basket she carries on her head appears to contain ghoulish skulls. Saar invokes spirits to speak to centuries of violence committed against people of color, while looking to the mythological spirit as a guide to healing and liberation.
The second section includes surrealist artists like Dorothea Tanning, whose twisted images of mystical beings in her painting “Guardian Angels” (1946) emanate a mysterious energy. Gertrude Abercrombie’s gothic shadow play in “Strange Shadows (Shadow and Substance)” (1950) is delightfully eerie, while Benjamin West’s 1777 painting, “Saul and the Witch of Endor,” is one of the few Biblical works in the exhibition.
Another section focuses on mediumship and contains items like Ouija boards and spirit catchers, while the last section ponders UFOs and dimensions beyond our universe, often based on artists’ personal experiences. Chris Pappan, who is Osage, Kaw, and Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux, turns to UFOs to address the politics of colonialism and white supremacy. Pappan reframes colonialism as an alien attack in “Another Incident at the Big Chief” (2021) and “See Haw Directs an Alien Invasion from the West” (1996). The works, rendered on municipal documents from the 1920s, draw from the Native American ledger art tradition, which often illustrated historical events; Pappan’s work offers a kind of alternative history through the alien metaphor.
Even for viewers who don’t believe in ghosts, spirits, or alien life, the works in Supernatural America possess their own power. They reveal the ghosts that linger in our collective psyche. In a time when we are still grappling with the unimaginable losses of COVID-19 and racial reckonings that ignited in 2020, the exhibition asks us to acknowledge, if not necessarily make peace with, our country’s haunted spirit.
Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota) through May 15. The exhibition was curated by Robert Cozzolino, Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.