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‘Supernatural America’ at Mia: The Call is Coming from Inside the House

We can’t escape history and we’re all going to die. And that’s what’s terrifying about Mia’s latest exhibition.

Gertrude Abercrombie, 'Search for Rest,' 1951.

“This is not a haunted-house show or a Halloween show,” curator Robert Cozzolino explains before we enter Mia’s new exhibition, “Supernatural America.” 

He’s right. But what you discover here may still haunt you.

“Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” features more than 150 works spanning over 120 years, from the early 1800s to the horrifying 2020s. While many of the pieces highlight traditional artists—Grant Wood (American Gothic), Andrew Wyeth (Christina’s World), James McNeill Whistler (y’all know his mom)—there are also tools and pieces used in rituals from Hoodoo practitioners, mediums, and, uh, scam artists (sorry not sorry, Bangs sisters).

A subtle unease permeates the exhibit. There are paintings inspired by ghost stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; there’s old-timey supernatural photography. There are works from people who claimed the dead inhabited their bodies while they drew and frantic works piecing together fragmented memories of UFO abductions.

Oh, yeah. There’s an outer space section, and it’s a wonderfully colorful mix of personal experiences, esoteric ponderings on the universe (Howardena Pindell, you’re blowing my mind), and aliens as a metaphor for “the other,” like when Europeans came to North America and fucked things up.

But whether you believe in ghosts or not, some of the specters featured in this show are undeniably very real. Cotton Demon, a sculpture by contemporary artist Alison Saar, speaks to the very real horrors of slavery, exploited labor, and white supremacy. The pale statue holds its arms in a satanic position, its downturned hand covered in red glass while its upward hand holds a twig stripped of life. Inside his hollow torso you can see the creature’s full of cotton. 

Credit: Alison Saar, 'Cotton Demon,' 1993

In another room there’s a large-scale portrait of a woman emerging from darkness by Whistler. It’s one of those paintings where the eyes make direct contact and follow you. This long-gone woman is perpetually crossing through the veil to gaze at us from another time and place, and that’s a truth that is unsettling.

“I think there’s a lot of heavy magic in this room,” Cozzolino tells the press group as we stand in the center of the Objects Room, a space filled with items used by spirit practitioners who attempted to bridge the veil between the living and the dead.

“Heavy” is a good way to explain “Supernatural America.” Whether you believe in ghosts or an afterlife, this collection serves as an unsettling reminder that in many ways we are the ones who are stuck between worlds. We live in the present, haunted by the past as we await a future that brings an unknowable but inescapable death. 

“We gotta make sure nothing follows us,” another guest warns me as we exit the exhibit. But I think something did follow me out, and I’m okay with that. 

“Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art”
Opening Saturday, February 19
Tickets are $20; RSVP here
Through May 15