Supernatural America unearths the paranormal

America is haunted. This is the idea behind Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art, an art exhibition touring the United States which explores the many ways that American artists make sense of the paranormal, the supernatural, and spirituality. The Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is now showing this exhibition until May 15.

Organized by Robert Cozzolino, the Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at Mia, the exhibition has been shown at the Toledo Museum of Art and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, before coming to the final location on the tour in Minneapolis.

The expansive exhibition includes approximately 160 objects of various mediums like oil paint, egg tempera, and charcoal, and different art forms such as clothing, paintings, sketches, video, and even occult paraphernalia like old Ouija boards. The pieces range from the late eighteenth century through the present and are organized into seven main sections. Each takes up one to two rooms and contains art with a different theme or focus, allowing visitors to fully appreciate and experience each topic before moving on to the next.

A key strength of Supernatural America is challenging visitors’ expectations. The concepts of supernatural and paranormal activity often provoke thoughts of ghosts, ghouls, and death, but the exhibit goes far beyond that. The first galleries in the exhibit include themes of grief and hope relating to genocide and the Civil War or artists’ personal experiences with loss. But, as viewers get further into the showcase, they see biblical paintings, spiritual and cultural artifacts, potions, depictions of aliens and UFOs, and even visual representations of synesthesia. There are stereotypes and stigmatization around supernatural entities and spirituality that often go undiscussed in the art world, but this exhibit and the deliberate organization of the artwork provide the opportunity to learn about the subtle ways that the paranormal intersects with life in unexpected ways.

One painting that stands out in the “National and Personal Haunting” section is “Angel on the Battlefield,” painted by Emanuel Gottliceb Leutze in 1864. Intertwining the themes of war and hope with haunting, Leutze juxtaposes a glowing angel and her beautiful aura of light with a dimly lit scene of fallen soldiers. In her hands, the angel holds a book where she inscribes the names of fallen soldiers and ensures their sacrifices will not be forgotten. The piece shows the connection between spirituality and religion as a source of comfort after loss, and portrays the supernatural in the context of redemption rather than in the typically frightening fashion of a haunting.

Moving into the next room, the exhibit then roots the supernatural in a religion known as spiritualism with a mixed-media scrapbook by an unknown artist. Featuring photography by William H. Mumler, handmade collage elements, and artistic decorations, the piece is part of a larger phenomenon known as spirit photography. Photographers like Mumler supposedly captured images with the subject’s deceased relatives to help the family mourn and honor their loved ones. Though many spirit photographers of the period were exposed as frauds, the art form played a large role in the spiritualistic culture and practices which are evident in the exhibit.

The concepts of supernatural and paranormal activity often provoke thoughts of ghosts, ghouls, and death, but the exhibit goes far beyond that.”

In the third section of the exhibit, Hyman Bloom’s “The Séance” gives visitors the textbook spine-chilling feeling of looking at truly haunted work. With multidimensional charcoal shadows, cryptic imagery of faces fading through clouds of smoke, and agony-ridden faces, the intensity of the piece is palpable. Though Cozzolino declared that it is not meant to be a “Halloween show” in his introduction to the exhibition, pieces such as Bloom’s add the perfect amount of spookiness to the collection.

Arguably, the most enticing part of the exhibit lies at the end in “Spirit Artists,” a section that highlights artists who communicate with spirits or claim to have been possessed by spirits while they created art. While many may be skeptical about the truths behind these artists’ claims, the gallery is nevertheless intriguing. With pieces fueled by visions of spirits in Indigenous cultures and even a piece by Frances Haines McVey with famous poet William Blake’s spirit guiding her hand, the artwork and the stories behind each one are truly unique.

The experience of Supernatural America is remarkable, whether self-led or directed by an audio guide. Each artist depicts a different interpretation of the paranormal and spirituality and whether they chose to use an eccentric color palette or simple black and white, the haunting and beautiful artwork in the Mia does not disappoint, making it nearly impossible to choose a favorite piece.

Visiting the exhibit is free for those 17 and under, $20 for general admission, and $16 for contributing investors. Reserve tickets here before May 15 or take a look at the many year-round Mia exhibits for free.