Ruckus logo in black letteringA dimly lit museum exhibition space with shiny, warm wooden floors and painted dark blue-green walls with neatly framed paintings of different sizes and shapes lining a left side wall and far rear wall that meet in a corner. Emerging perpendicular out of a shallow plinth on the floor is a, ghostly backlit image, possibly a screen, showing three, blue, monochrome standing figures holding hands next to one another, with their features partially obscured with an image grain.
Above: Install of Supernatural America at the Speed Art Museum

Supernatural America


Review


Alison Saar’s Cotton Demon (1993), is a wooden sculpture depicting the figure of a child that has, apart from the child’s black lips, been painted bright white. The child’s right arm holds up a blood-stained twig, while its left is presented palm out to the audience revealing blood stained fingers. Cut into the figure’s abdomen a lancet shaped window reveals a small cotton plant. Exploring the traumatic history of racism in the United States, Cotton Demon reveals itself as both an apparition and spiritual figure, presented to us as an offering and reminder of the blood of African Americans who built America.

Cotton Demon is one of many works included in Supernatural America, currently on view at the Speed Art Museum. Investigating all things paranormal in American art, Supernatural America is expansive in its exploration, broadly covering the categories “America as a Haunted Place,” “Apparitions,” “Channeling Spirits/Rituals,” and “Plural Universes”. Spanning over two floors at the Speed the amount of work presented throughout can be overwhelming, and splitting the exhibition into sections proves essential to navigating such a large survey of works. Each carefully organized theme gives the viewer a chance to engross themselves in each of the respective areas, to become obsessed with the supernatural—with spirits or UFO’s—just as the artists and spiritualists creating the imagery were.

While this broad survey makes it difficult to discuss the exhibition as a whole, as each category in itself could function on its own, it is through this survey that the exhibition is able to explore not just what one may immediately imagine when considering the paranormal, but also allows for a critical interpretation of the way the supernatural in art can be used as a tool to reflect on our past and inform our understanding of the present.

Cotton Demon is shown alongside Saar’s Acheron (2016), a charcoal and chalk drawing of a woman wading through flood water that has reached her waist. Taken from a series that focused on the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, the figure in Acheron balances a large, covered bowl on top of her head, that is revealed to be a trio of stacked skulls within the reflection of the floodwater. Exploring the toll that environmental racism has had on communities of color in America, Saar’s drawing incorporates the floodwater as a murky veil between the lands of the living and dead. In both of these works, Saar confronts past injustices inflicted on Black Americans in the United States and uses her figures as reminders of the past and of America’s persistent legacy of displacement and racism.

While Saar’s work confronts historical trauma, artist Gertrude Abercrombie used the paranormal in her art as a manner of grappling with her present conflictions. Abercrombie’s painting Strange Shadows (Shadows and Substance) (1950) presents the elongated figure of Abercrombie, dressed in a blue gown in a shadowy environment. Neither interior nor exterior, Abercrombie exists outside of reality as she is approached by her own shadow offering her a drink. Peculiar objects accompany the two Abercrombies: a star shaped clock, an owl (seen twice, once as a shadow and once as real being), and a pedestal with the non-shadow glass cup. The two Abercrombies quite likely represent her conflicting roles as she navigated mid- 20th-century society’s expectations for women in the domestic sphere and attempted to balance her life as mother, wife, and artist. In a sense, Abercrombie paints herself as haunted by her own shadow, or more abstractly haunted by both her own, and society’s expectations for herself. 

The idea of being haunted is, expectedly, a central theme throughout Supernatural America but is not exclusive to the idea of spirits or ghosts. Instead the theme is organic, tracing the idea that a nation can be haunted by its past or present ideologies as noted in the works above, or how individuals can be haunted by personal memories or grief,  as seen in Helen Lunderberg’s Double Portrait of the Artist in Time (1935). Exploring the lingering connections of youth and adulthood, in this work Lunderberg has depicted herself three times, once as a toddler, once as an adult, and again as a shadowy figure spanning between these life stages. Here, the artist shows herself as haunted by the stages of her life and how various selves she has been as she has aged, co-exist to inform who she is now. Finally, even in the exhibition’s section on “Parallel Universes,” the idea persists for those haunted or plagued by a fascination with UFO sightings and their dreams for worlds beyond our own.

This fluid idea of haunting, then, seems to exist as a universal emotive phenomenon that collectively lingers between our imaginations and our realities. Marvin Cone’s The Appointed Room (1940), for example, plays on this idea of how the idea of haunting lingers in our psyche. Cone’s green monochromatic painting places the viewer behind a door staring into a small room. A door in the back right opens to a dark room, while another to the left shows a set of stairs with light casting down them. Void of ghosts or even anything explicitly spooky, Cone’s peculiar perspective, shading, and paint application all contribute to create a painting that invokes unease, and essentially, visually captures the imaginative spirit of haunting.

The strength of Supernatural America lies in its use of this expanded idea of haunting both as an exploration of the personal and to explore political and social culture in America. For example, another area of the exhibition explores the 19th century’s fascination with the religion of Spiritualism, a surprisingly radical movement that not only placed the marginalized in a prominent role, but often advocated for gender and racial equality and social reform. The drawings of Wella P. and Lizzie Anderson for example, are portraits of prominent historical figures—such as Ben Franklin who is surrounded by a thick fog—drawn in trance states and who came with messages of reform and warning. Another trance drawing depicts the Persian Queen Vashti, a figure posthumously seen as a feminist icon for disobeying the orders of her husband to appear naked at court.

In his Catalog essay, curator Robert Cozzolino notes that the supernatural and paranormal in art have often been marginalized by academics and viewed as a topic that is “professionally risky,” a somewhat strange notion considering the popularity of the supernatural and paranormal in popular culture—one that spans centuries as evidenced by Walter McEwen’s 1887 painting The Ghost Story, an image of 7 young women sitting around enamored by the central figure who weaves a haunted tale for the group. And yet it also makes sense that a marginalized topic may be taken up by artists equally marginalized for their beliefs, gender, or color of their skin. Within Supernatural America, the artists involved all dive deeply into their personal paranormal investigations, without inhibition, using their beliefs or encounters to illuminate more than just an eerie image. 
 
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Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art is on view at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY through January 2, 2022.

Notes:
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11.29.21

Jessica Oberdick (she/her) is an independent curator and writer whose research focuses on themes of identity and social perception. She currently works as the Exhibitions Assistant at the University of Louisville.
A surrealist painting of a slender, cartoonish woman in a teal dress on a red wood floor, with a hand outstretched toward a blue bird on a short white pillar. A small clock and owl sit elsewhere on the floor, all against a hazy grey background, with shadows that don’t perfectly match.
Strange Shadows (Shadow and Substance) (1950), Gertrude Abercrombie, Oil on canvas, 21¼× 35 in. Private Collection, courtesy Richard Norton Gallery, Photo: © James Prinz Photography, Chicago


A dimly lit museum exhibition space with shiny, warm wooden floors and painted dark blue-green walls that form a corner leading into a corridor out of view. Across two different walls are three paintings in a row of different shapes, sizes, but all of them are bright, colorful, and iconographic, showing things like hands, and stars, and UFO’s.
Install of Supernatural America. Left: 
Untitled (Flying Saucers with Snakes) (1961), Macena Barton. Right: The Thanaton III (1989), Paul Laffoley.


A dimly lit museum exhibition space with shiny, warm wooden floors and painted pale wooden walls, with a human figure statue in the corner and a charcoal figure painting on the wall to its right.

Works of Alison Saar. Left: Cotton Demon (1993). Right: Acheron (2016).



Detail shot of a wooden figure statue, painted a chalky white, with red, seemly bloody hands, a calm vacant expression, an opened up abdomen revealing a kind of enlarged belly button, and holding a red twig over its right shoulder.
Cotton Demon (1993), detail, Alison Saar.


An oil painting titled “The Ghost Story” in an ornate wooden frame hanging on a dark grey wall depicting a group of 7 women of different ages, gathered around a spinning wheel in a brightly lit room with wooden floors gesticulating and talking with one another.
The Ghost Story (1887), Walter McEwen.

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