Whitehot Magazine

Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art at The Minneapolis Institute of Art

John Jota Leaños, American (Xicano-Mestizo), Destinies Manifest, 2017. Digital animation, installation, 7 minutes. Commissioned by the Denver Art Museum. Courtesy of the Artist, John Jota Leaños. Photos: Blue Rain Gallery, Santa Fe, NM. © John Jota Leaños



Last year in February 2022, The Minneapolis Institute of Art presented Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art, curated by Dr. Robert Cozzolino. This collection featured works centering their authors’ varied connections to exotic states of consciousness and experiences beyond the pale of the ordinary. Aside from the impressive scope of its production, Supernatural America stood apart from similar exhibits in its curatorial staff’s unequivocal support for their artists’ belief in their experience. For this stance to be held at such a level is, however, not without context. J. Razor Newton Chair of Religion at Rice University, Jeffery Kripal - a leading voice in today’s discourse on the supernatural - is one who has devoted his academic career to developing methodological frameworks through which Western scholars and researchers may reflect on the nature of supernatural phenomena, and on the evidence of their reality. That academics coined the terms paranormal and supernatural to describe an empirically verified[1] feature of reality is just one example Kripal cites to divest these terms of their inherited derogatory rhetorical resonance with the “make-believe”. As his book title, “The Super Natural”[2] suggests, the supernatural and paranormal can be understood as expressions of natural processes that are categorically implausible only when scrutinized through the lens of Victorian-era materialism - a framework that has lost its credibility in light of mounting breakthroughs in modern quantum physics[3]. It is with this renewed perspective on the terms, supernatural and paranormal, that we are invited to consider this exhibit which has been divided into four distinct categories: America as a Haunted Place, Apparitions, Channeling Spirits/Ritual, and Plural Universes.

Betye Saar, The View from the Sorcerer’s Window, 1966. Assemblage of color and intaglio etchings and wood window frame with six panes of glass, 30 × 15½ × 1¼ in. Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld Photo: Collection of halley k harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld, New York. Courtesy the Artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, CA. © Betye Saar

The video installation Destinies Manifest by John Jota Leaños beautifully animates this first category and contextualizes this exhibit’s subject within a land shackled to the history of Empire. This work’s central imagery reimagines John Gast’s 1872 painting Manifest Destiny which depicts the American colonial goddess, Columbia, as she traipses across the American landscape galvanizing her retinue of settler acolytes. Where Gast’s Europeans meet only thin numbers of retreating natives, Leaños’ encounter a land teeming with indigenous life and her endemic spirits - thus does Leaños complete the image of this historic trespass, insisting on a reinterpretation of Gast’s work devoid of its implicit, paternalistic narrative of the heroic frontiersmen spreading “civilization” and “enlightenment”. America’s authentic verdant beauty lasts for but a moment before it is engulfed by the steel and concrete leviathan of modern infrastructure. In anticolonial defiance, Leaños conjures a stampede of bison to trample this abject vision, shattering it to pieces as though it was no more than a thin pane of glass. The uncolonized landscape is restored, suggesting that this land and her indigenous spirits, having only been occluded by a fragile veneer, endure.  

Henriette Reis, Frederic Chopin Impromptu A Flat Major, ‘Carefree,’ before 1939. Tempera on paper, mounted on backing, 11¾ × 85/8 in. Private Collection. © The Reiss Estate. Photo: © 2020 Georgia Landman.

Reports of supernatural and mystical experiences consistently express a blurring of interiority and exteriority, the material and immaterial - dichotomies which viewers encounter in the categoryApparitions. The archetype of the ‘haunted house’ - a classic locus of direct encounter - provides inspiration to the artists, Marvin Cone and Morris Kantor. Encountering the relics of colonial America, the Russian expatriate, Morris Kantor would become obsessed with what appeared to him as the profound strangeness of New England architecture. Author Sarah Berns rightly detects Kantor’s sentiments of nostalgia and wonder in his Haunted House. In this work, a silhouette materializes in the periphery of our vision - the room’s walls dissolve into its opaque body through which the surrounding town, no longer obscured, floods the (house’s) interior. Marvin Cone’s Anniversary presents a similar tension between figure and ground. The chalky outline of a spectral figure bisects the “wrong geometry” of Cone’s interiors. This “wrong geometry”, which Burns cites as a term coined by horror scholar Jack Morgan, utilizes a “mismatching of perspectival lines and angles that ‘disturbingly violate aesthetic rightness,’” [4] producing an effect calculated to provoke anxiety in the viewer. We experience this aesthetic signature at work in the sloping floors that pull us into the dull grays and greens of the room and deposit us before a luminous figure at the entrance of a darkened staircase. For Kantor and Cone, the spiritual is spectral: as an expressions of the invisible, their figures become positive absences. In contrast, artists Ivan Albright and Macena Barton present the extra-physical as dynamically entwined with materiality. In the painting, Untitled (Portrait of Mother), Macena encloses her mother’s figure within a solid band of lime green, giving expression to her reported ability to see auras. In this particular case of portraiture, the etheric is imbued with physical contour. In The Vermonter, royal purples and blues spill through the subject’s aged folds in a full display of Albright’s characteristic devotion to accumulating minute details. Though threatened by the ravages of entropy, the Vermonter’s meticulously-rendered material body presents as the ideal vessel through which the cosmos’ constitutive forces emanate.

Of Supernatural America’s four categories, Channeling Spirits/Ritual comprises the widest range of perspectives. Betye Saar - a pioneer of postwar black nationalist aesthetics - practices blending high art with found objects to reconfigure material narratives. In The View from The Sorcerer’s Window Saar sets intaglio etchings within a wooden window frame in a sequence of stars and earth to evoke a world that unfolds from the celestial to the terrestrial. Saar’s craft preserves the sense of mystery authentic to American folk art: the scene conjured behind the implied panes of glass exudes a silent meaning of the invisible. In contrast to Saar’s wall piece, Renée Stout’s facsimile, The Rootworker’s Table, extends into the viewer’s space. Stout’s primary focus on the material culture of the African diaspora is rooted in her first childhood encounter with mystical objects such as Nkondi Nkisi figurines[5]. In her practice of assemblagé, Stout reconfigures such traditional metaphysical items to express this rich connection to her past and culture. Drawing upon her training as a photorealist painter, Stout replicates the rootworker’s scrawled lists of arcane formulas on chalkboard through oil stick on masonite. Through their practices, these artists remind us that the supernatural abides in the ordinary: Stout and Saar’s work challenge the inclination to dismiss the spiritual dimension of life unless it announces itself with Hollywood special effects, locating it within our cultural and familial connections. 

Should the viewer mistake “channeling spirits” as a mere metaphor, Agatha Wojciechowsky’s work affirms this category’s literal meaning. With no prior training in art, Agatha began to produce automatic writing and drawings in her 50s - reporting that: “this is the work of different entities who take over and step into my body, directing my hand. I really have nothing to do with it.[6] Wojciechowsky’s eventual ordination as a priestess of “The Universal Spiritualist Association” would take no great stretch of her worldview, considering that this church asserts the literal presence of the departed everywhere, all the time - And Spirits expresses just that. Ghostly visages of the dead emerge through columns of vibrant watercolors, saturating the paper in dense fields of bioluminescence. They are rendered with a stark confidence, leaving no doubt of Agatha’s conviction in their presence. 

Moving to the human interior, the coveted artistic faculty of synesthesia becomes the implicit subject of Henriette Reiss’ Frederic Chopin Impromptu A Flat Major,‘Carefree’ and Poem Symphonique: Redemption Tone Poem, César Franck ‘Temptation’. While ostensibly unrelated to a show about the paranormal, these psychic textiles point to the surreal truth of consciousness’ elusive relationship between the human organism and its environment. Capturing this discreet synthesis between subject and percept, Reiss’ work puts the spiritual imagination’s capabilities on full display.

Marvin Cone, Anniversary, 1938. Oil on canvas, 18 × 16 in. Museum purchase, Art Advancement Fund with gift of Winnifred Cone, 82.10.3. Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, IA. © Estate of Marvin Cone.

Between the self-taught Ionel Talpazan (legal name: Adrian DaVinci) and the highly-trained Paul Laffoley, we have the perfect opportunity to compare the aesthetic impact of their shared attempt to impart discrete realms of knowledge in the category of Plural Universes. Informed by a childhood UFO encounter, Talpazan fixates on the physical technology of extraterrestrial craft and its potential for mechanical reproduction. This concern for objective study contrasts with the focus of autobiography that features so prominently in the work of other ‘experiencer’ artists such as David Huggins, which centers on (the sometimes highly personal) aspects of alien contact.[7] As Talpazan’s work is predicated on its potential utility for scientific progress, the aesthetic signature of Spiritual Technology is fundamentally diagrammatic. The depicted UFO bulges and sags against the paper’s borders; like thousands of similar depictions in Talpazan’s oeuvre, its geometric structures and patterns shift between religious motifs, thought and presence - all of which he felt himself to have channeled from an otherworldly source.

If Talpazan was an antenna, translating discreet transmissions from an extraterrestrial source, then Paul Laffoley was a geyser, compressing the depths of chthonic insight into flowing tapestries of insight. Like any of his works, The Thanaton III exemplifies Laffoley’s attempt to communicate the “force structure of the mystical experience” through diagrammatic rendering. Such didactic works cycle the viewer through sign, index, icon, and archetype as an initiatory experience to Laffoley’s own configuration of dimensionality. Because Paul channels his mystical imagination through a (staggering) breadth of established scholarly knowledge, his work remains grounded in a cogent logic, however perturbing its graphic density may be to the casual glance. This immediate impression of impenetrability that Rupert Howe cites as Laffoley’s intent to encourage “effort on the part of the viewer” in order to understand his work. The Thanaton III, apparently “requires people to place their hands above the picture’s surface on special pads and stare into an all-seeing eye.” [8] Lest anyone think that the similarities between Talpazan and Laffoley end with their shared preference for diagram, Paul himself credits a small metallic implant discovered below his pineal gland during a routine Cat-scan - which he believes to be “extraterrestrial in origin” - as the “main motivation of [his] thoughts and ideas.” [9] 

Although they affirm the veracity of such phenomena, most public programming on the paranormal exists as spectacle. Shows such as Paranormal Caught on Camera or Ghost Adventures [10] exemplify the limited format that representations of the supernatural are largely permitted by mainstream outlets, which justify its broad dismissal as chicanery. As public testimony, Supernatural America refuses this standard of presentation. Given the implications of the curators’ support for these works’ claims to truth under the aegis of a respected cultural institution, this exhibit can be included within the growing tributary of vetted and credentialed explorations of post-materialist subjects.[11] In fact, during this exhibit’s timeline, Dr. Kripal launched Archives of the Impossible - a conference hosted by Rice University Humanities department inaugurating the eponymous database of what promises to be the largest collection of primary source documents on paranormal phenomena in the United States. During this event, leading scholars would present their findings on how these phenomena possess a verifiable, if illusive, consistency - further consolidating the growing institutional ties between journalism, scientific inquiry, and the humanities.   

Dr. Kripal invites us to consider paranormal and psychical phenomena as  “meaning events” - processes which “appear in order to mock and shock us out of our normal thinking.” [12] He contends that since such phenomena - being rooted in meaning - look and behave much like text and narrative processes, it “follows that texts [...] work and look a great deal like paranormal phenomena.” [13] By texts, he means works of literature and if we may extend this comparison to fine art, philosopher, JF Martel echoes Dr. Kripal’s interpretation, stating that art “is (emphasis mine) paranormal, an anomaly casting doubt upon the most cherished certainties about the nature of reality.” [14] As art and the supernatural both potentiate a space where meaning and appearance acutely overlap, it is no stretch to claim that art always conveys and simulates an encounter with the supernatural. Furthermore, when we consider how significant percentages of reported experiences with the supernatural are traumatic in nature, we better appreciate that art always presents us with a similar opportunity to expand our sense of meaning and only to the degree to which what truth it presents may be safely integrated. As a result of its curatorial sensitivity and ambition, Supernatural AmericaThe Paranormal in American Art was more than a monument to its artists’ legacies but a significant contribution to the growing public discourse on the empirical verification of a cosmos entwined with meaningful aspects of our subjectivity. WM

[10] The episode “Horror at Joe Exotic Zoo” is a must-see.

[11] The work of Dean Radin, Leslie Kean, Jeffrey Kripal, Diana Walsh Pasulka, Julia Mossbridge and Mitch Horowitz make for an excellent introduction to these topics.

[13] ibid. 

[14] Martel, J. F. (2015). pg 13. In Reclaiming art in the age of artifice: A treatise, critique, and call to action. essay, North Atlantic Books. 


Alfred Rosenbluth

Alfred Rosenbluth is an artist and researcher currently residing in the Philadelphia area. You can find him at @_aallffrreedd on instagram or through his website at www.alfredrosenbluth.com

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