Arts and Culture

Walking through the exhibition, footsteps echo around the room. Art is everywhere: the walls, the floor, hanging from above.

The air feels heavy in the Speed Art Museum galleries. There’s an energy flowing through the space. Going from piece to piece, swirling to fill the rooms.

The tension surrounding Supernatural America: The Paranormal in America Art is not surprising, given its name.

“The works in this exhibition, brought together, have intentionality to them that is very different, and you feel it,” said Erika Holmquist-Wall, Curator of European & American Painting & Sculpture. “They’re imbued with an energy.”

That intentionality traverses two floors. With works spanning 250 years, this is the largest exhibition the Speed has ever hosted. 

“This is an exhibition that I have really kinda had my eye on for over five years,” Holmquist-Wall said.

It originated at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. 

Grounding forces

The enormous display is split between two core themes. The lower floor explores America as a haunted place.

Holmquist-Wall said this part of the exhibition focuses on the haunted histories and landscapes of the U.S. It confronts the ghosts of the past that continue to affect the present.

People attending the exhibition have been particularly interested in the multimedia works and by two pieces in particular.

The first is a recreation of a parlor by Whitfield Lovell

“The room is made up of reclaimed wood from the Jackson Ward in Richmond, Va., which was the first successful Black entrepreneurial neighborhood following the Civil War,” Holmquist-Wall said.

The room is frozen in a moment. There are plates on the table, mail at a desk and keys near the door.

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The recreated parlor goes beyond visual engagement to include an audio element that evokes people and sounds of the time.

On the wall, ghostly figures of the people who may have inhabited this space are painted, but to get the full effect visitors must move through the space.

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A man looks out from the walls at visitors as they move through the recreated parlor.

Near the organ on one side of the room, the sound of a gospel song can be heard, but moving to the other side, the sound morphs into someone reading names and addresses of the residents of Jackson Ward.

“That room, in particular, feels incredibly powerful,” said Ashely Giron, who attended the exhibition’s opening. “It’s a great opportunity to remind us that there are a lot of very interesting spiritual connections to the lands and culture of America.”

Directly across from the room is a piece that spans a whole wall, almost 15 feet across. 

Destinies Manifest by John Jota Leaños is a seven-minute video that questions the concept of manifest destiny, the idea that it was divine will for the U.S. to expand westward.

Courtesy of the Artist, John Jot

John Jota Leaños. American (Xicano-Mestizo), born 1969. 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.

“You’ve got this kinda famous folk art painting where you got this 19th century pretty blond angel kinda flying across the sky guiding the Conestoga wagons across the frontier toward the West, but what happens is she becomes the angel of death,” said Holmquist-Wall.

Courtesy of the Artist, John Jot

John Jota Leaños. American (Xicano-Mestizo), born 1969. 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.

The video goes on to depict borders going up across native lands and the destruction of their space. A buffalo runs across the screen reminding viewers of the freedom the landscape once had.

“We were just having a conversation about, you know, the state of our indigenous people and how the land was just taken from them,” said Kirby Coleman after watching the video the first night of the exhibition.

He said he was excited to see the ways in which the artwork confronted the racist, violent and colonial past of the U.S. from the perspective of those most affected by it.

Moving from the first floor to the second, the theme literally ascends to the spirit world.

“America as a haunted place is kinda terra firma below, and upstairs, you take the stairs or the elevator up, you’re in the world of the spirits,” Holmquist-Wall said. 

Ascension, challenging comprehension

On this floor, artists explore the otherworldly, the occult and even the extraterrestrial. 

Moving throughout the second floor, the murmur of voices grows louder until Tony Oursler’s “The Dust” can be seen.

Photo: Courtesy Tony Oursler. ©

Tony Oursler. American, born 1957 Dust, from Thought Forms, 2006. Fiberglass sculpture, Haron Kardon HS100 5.1 sound system, Sony XGA VPL-PX41 projector, 2 Sanyo PLC-XU48 projectors, 3 DVD players, 6 DVDs, and 3 master tapes, 72 × 72 × 72 in. The Broad Art Foundation, Los Angeles CA, F-Ours-1S06.05. Photo: Courtesy Tony Oursler. © Tony Oursler.

It’s a huge cloud hanging down from the ceiling; projected onto it are body parts: eyes, ears and mouths. Voices and noises overlap each other.

“This piece really explores the notion that what goes around comes around, we’re all made up of dust,” Holmquist-Wall said. “We’re just made up of the essence of everything.”

The final part of the exhibition departs Earth completely to explore alternative universes and the extraterrestrial. 

Images of UFOs and creatures not of the Earth line the walls.

There is a piece, The Thanaton III by Paul Laffoley, on the wall that claims to be a portal to another world. All you have to do is place one hand the past, one on the future and gaze into the eye present. 

Courtesy of Kent Fine Art, New Y

Paul Laffoley. American, 1935–2015 The Thanaton III, 1989. Oil, acrylic, ink, and hand-applied vinyl letters on canvas; painted wooden frame, 73 1/2 × 73 1/2 in. Private Collection, Courtesy of Kent Fine Art, New York, NY Photo: Kent Fine Art.

However, there is a sign next to this piece warning you not to touch. The Speed doesn’t want anyone interdimensional traveling or visiting far-off planets on their watch.

This is part of the exhibition Holmquist-Wall has the hardest time accepting. Ghosts and spirits she can get behind more easily, but the challenges of accepting the experience of UFOs and aliens remind her of the takeaway she hopes people will leave with.

“I cannot discount somebody else’s lived experience, whether that is an experience that they personally had that they are trying to articulate and draw or paint or express,” Holmquist-Wall said. “Who are we, who are we to judge that?”

Supernatural America: The Paranormal in America Art will be on display at Speed Art Museum through January 2022.

Breya Jones is the Breaking News Reporter for WFPL.