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Supernatural American: Part II

Search for Rest by Gertrude Abercrombie.

Speed Art Museum lifts the spiritual veil through their exhibition that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine

 

By Melissa Chipman
Photos provided by Speed Art Museum

 

From visions of spirits to visits by aliens, the current exhibit at the Speed Art Museum, Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art, explores the ways that Americans have sought out and encountered the otherworldly. The study of the supernatural is necessarily a study of death and ephemera and of the limited time we have on this earth. The post-Civil War artists embraced spiritualism in the wake of war. As they grappled with ghosts, the Afrofuturists grappled with outer space. Each of the diverse artists featured in the exhibit professes to have had a paranormal or spiritual experience. 

Some of these experiences resulted in the creation of the art itself. The exhibit features spirit writing books, usually in an unknown language, dictated by spirit guiding the writer’s hand. There are several drawings by Frances McVey from the 1950s; the English Romantic poet William Blake was said to have moved her pencil around as he described paths that souls could take. Other artists painted or drew while in trance-like states. Chicago’s the Bang Sisters, repeatedly arrested for being charlatans in the late 1800s, are represented with their spirit portrait of a deceased wife and two daughters “dictated” by spirits. Many works feature “and Spirit” as co-artists. 

Anniversary by Marvin Cone.

One of the many notable works evokes palpable dread of imminent death. Most famous for the portrait American Gothic, Grant Wood’s Death on Ridge Road features two cars on a hill and the anticipation of a collision with a red truck climbing the mountain on the other side, unseen. A telephone pole that looks like a crucifix looms in the foreground. Remarkably, the artist’s study for that painting—a pencil drawing that is the exact likeness—resided in a private collection here in Louisville and was loaned to the museum for display.

Some of the most expressive pieces in the exhibit invite you to have a spiritual or paranormal revelation. The Common Denominator of Existence is Loss by Dario Robleto joined Speed’s collection right before the pandemic. The sculpture is a wooden and glass display table that features a circle of 50,000-year-old extinct cave bear paws and human hand bones grasping a 19th-century mourning ribbon braided with the pulled audiotape of the earliest audio recording of an experimental clock. 

The Lady Magician by Sylvia Fein.

“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,” the label reads. “The artist brings together objects that evoke spirits both connected to the remains of bodies and the ephemeral traces of sound, arranged as though present in a séance circle.” 

Dust by Tony Oursler is an immersive piece of art that features a suspended, magnified particle of dust as a fiberglass sculpture upon which is projected a roiling cacophony of eyes, mouths, hands and feet. Raspy voices articulate seemingly unrelated words and phrases. 

In his artist’s statement, Oursler writes, “Dust, as the Bible reminds us, is what we are made of as well as our physical inevitability. Surrounded by invisible particles, we actually breathe and shed minute bits of every human endeavor. Particles from Egyptian pyramids, DDT, the World Trade Center, pollen, CO2, spittle, viruses, springtime, Marilyn Monroe’s perfume, automobile exhaust, and wildflowers mixed with Chernobyl could all be floating around at any given moment. Dust struck me as a physical interconnector in a world increasingly dominated by virtual isolation.” 

Temptation by Henriette Reiss.

One of the final works in the exhibit is The Thanaton III, a colorful schematic that combines mysticism and alien influences and features The Eye of Providence and two hands, with each being drawn from extraterrestrial being’s hands. Those who encounter the work correctly, according to artist and mystic Paul Laffoley, “by stretching out [their] arms, touching the upright hands, and staring into the eye – would be able to communicate with extraterrestrial beings.” Again, some of the most outstanding works in the exhibit invite you in.

Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art runs through January 2, 2022, on the second and third floors of the Speed Art Museum. Starting Oct. 15 all visitors aged 12 and older must present proof of complete COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of attendance.

Dust, from Thought Forms by Tony Oursler.

Speed Art Museum
2035 South Third St.
Louisville, KY 40208
speedmuseum.org
502.634.2700