On ViewHill-Stead Museum
June 25 – November 1, 2022
Hill-Stead Museum is one of Connecticut’s best-kept secrets, quietly boasting a formidable collection of early Impressionist paintings ranging from the sumptuous harmonies of Monet, Degas, Manet to a quintessential Madonna and Child by Mary Cassatt. Hill-Stead was designed and founded in 1901 by Theodate Pope Riddle, a self-taught architect and philanthropist who generously supported psychical research and was an active participant in seances herself. Upon arrival, I am met by a tour guide who takes me on an exploration of the Colonial Revival house, determinedly maintained in a fine coat of historical dust as is so often the case in house museums. I am shocked when the guide casually gestures towards a seascape by Whistler, hanging unprotected in the historic kitchen. Still contemplating the strangeness of being arm’s length from Impressionist masters in suburban Connecticut, I am led across closely-cropped grass to a more recently constructed gallery allotted for temporary exhibitions. It is here that I encounter the hard-edged abstraction of Radical Spirits: Tarot, Automatism, and Feminist Histories by the feminist art collective, Hilma’s Ghost.
Hilma’s Ghost is comprised of Dannielle Tegeder and Sharmistha Ray, Brooklyn-based artists and educators. Founded in 2020 during the social isolation engendered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hilma’s Ghost mines the false binaries between science and spirituality, utilizing the history of spiritualism to address gendered and racial inequities in the art canon. In RADICAL SPIRITS: Tarot, Automatism, and Feminist Histories, the two artists tackle the creative, spiritual and generative possibilites in tarot, mediumship, and automatism. Oscillating between the roles of artists and organizers–they recently curated a show on mysticism and abstraction at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in midtown—Tegeder and Ray’s Radical Spirits is their first solo museum show and finds them diving deep into the long history of Spiritualism in Europe and the Americas, gathering particular inspiration from its practice at Hill-Stead and combining that with automatic processes in art.
Hilma’s Ghost’s five Automatic Theorem Paintings hang on a pastel-pink painted on the left side of the gallery. These 5’ by 4’ works, like blueprints for some imagined, fantastical structure, are rendered with oil paint on light taupe velveteen-covered wooden panels. The brightly colored oil paint throbs, almost emitting a glow that contrasts the formal rigidity of the geometric shapes themselves. From afar, the paintings feel familiar: a re-articulation of Modernism’s unyielding edges. Moving closer to the content, however, any clear reference slowly dissolves. Automatic Theorem Painting #3, in particular, looks like the skeletal system of a nondescript machine: geometric shapes–circular, rectangular and conical– intersect, the oil paint rubbed on in an ombré effect that darkens until reaching an outer, hard edge. I find myself captivated by the rich magenta and blue arrows that evince directionality but ultimately lead to dead ends and cul-de-sacs–or do they gesture towards things unseen outside the boundaries of the painting? In Automatic Theorem Painting #2, geometric shapes of violet, turquoise, burnt orange, and yellow float atop the velveteen surface. A delicate, sinuous necklace of deep blue pearls darkens when intersecting with an inverted, purple obtuse triangle. Elsewhere in the composition, I attempt to pin down a representation of an eye, only to be refused fixity of form.
Much of the work by Hilma’s Ghost is predicated on a spirit of collaboration. The five theorem paintings as well as the three drawings and large scale painting in Radical Spirits were made with the assistance of a “professional witch” who guided the two artists in channeling and drawing sessions on the Hill-Stead grounds. The works’ composition, color choices and intent rely on a combination of automatism, sigil-making and the use of tarot cards: practices that cede control to an unknown entity. This finds parallel in the pieces themselves where the oil paint sumptuously sinks into the creamy, velutinous surface and the shapes appear to be constantly both submerging and emerging.
The technique of painting on velvet is a formal and conceptual triumph for Ray and Tegeder and was catalyzed by their own first visit to Hill-Stead, during which they encountered a nineteenth-century theorem painting in an unassuming desk drawer. Theorem painting as a craft and technique historically involved laying stencils on top of velvet or other cloth and using watercolor to “stain” the design onto the surface. Its emergence in the 1800s coincided with a nation in flux. With rapid industrialization and the boundaries between work and life becoming increasingly delineated, women—albeit of privilege—were sequestered to the domain of the home. Ways of decorating the cage of domesticity soon followed. A tool for the nation's new “social hostesses,” theorem kits were sold door-to-door to housewives and taught as a craft across New England to young women in finishing school. An oft-represented image in these works was the overflowing cornucopia of ripe, ready-to-burst bounty, a symbol meant to reflect a rapidly growing economic landscape. I imagine young girls, lined in rows, shoulders hunched over desks, faithfully reproducing the pastoral complacency of a fruit basket. I think of it as an antiquated precursor to paint by numbers, an outlet for creativity kept in check by the generic container of domesticity. In contrast to these proscribed praxes, Ray’s and Tegeder’s Automatic Theorem Paintings #1-5 dismantle the proverbial fruit basket by turning it into a composition of geometric shapes and dis-orderering lifeless organization. What results is a diagram that reveals the inertia inherent in the cornucopia, a faulty symbol for progress and prosperity, and makes visible the insidious underpinnings of domesticity and capitalism.
Positioned centrally in the gallery and spread out in grid-form is the collective’s Abstract Futures Tarot. Ray and Tegeder found inspiration in the widely-known Rider-Waite deck, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. Working collaboratively, the duo produced 78 lushly-colored drawings using a combination of gouache, ink, and colored pencils, simplifying the representational depictions in the Rider-Waite illustrations into geometric shapes of amorphous meaning. Abstract Futures Tarot serves as a conceptual bedrock for the duo’s practice; when in doubt during the making of a piece, they pull cards and intuit an amalgamation of forms and meanings that inform their larger-scale work.
This technique was used for the drawings in the Chromagick series, three of which are on view here. Despite a visual flatness, the 39 by 27 inch pieces reveal surprising tactility, the layers of gouache creating seemingly imperceptible ridges that increase optical depth. Taking inspiration from the Bauhasian color wheel, Hilma’s Ghost harnesses the in-betweens of opacity; delicately applied watercolor, almost translucent, reveals forms and color choices in the background. Or are they the background? The geometric shapes still seem to be deciding where they want to be, shifting and reordering themselves as if they’re trying to unlock—and thereby reveal—something hidden.
Similarly nebulous are the titles of the work, which directly address the viewer with oracle-like pronouncements like the following:“The truth hurts sometimes, but it’s so much worse to believe the lies. You say you want to know what’s real but then you refuse to hear it. The secret to happiness is that it doesn’t have to be like this. Help is here when you need it, all you need to do is ask.” The sentences, which feel like excerpts from a longer manual, require the viewer to muster up her own agency in completing the meaning. This collaboration with a spiritual “other” to aid in the creation of work is inherently radical; what Hilma’s Ghost prompts us to reconsider is our own white-knuckled clutch on the American myth of individualism, the notion of going it alone. In collaboration—whether with the living or spirit entities or both—we might find answers that we cannot find when ensconced in our silos.
Ray and Tegeder refer to themselves as “believing skeptics.” Emerging after the seminal 2018 Guggenheim debut of Swedish artist Hilma af Klint (1862-1944), the collective utilizes an assortment of non-traditional means to surface artists who have lived and worked in liminal spaces. Spiritualism is not novel so the question becomes why are we witnessing its increased presence in the dominant culture: Etsy sellers peddling healing gemstones and TikTok gurus intoning 60-second “manifestation” videos—“if you’re seeing this video, this message is for you….” Although these could be interpreted as just another capitalist commodification, I believe this trend reflects a deeper hunger for a recalibration of our current systems, a turning-away from trauma-cycles of production, consumption and waste.
A seductive alternative to rational or empirical truth, Spiritualism in nineteenth-century New England ran concurrently with the questioning of Christianity’s dominion in America; persons of humble background embodying the “spirit” could replace hierarchical and distant authority figures in the Church. In addition, it gestured towards a thirst for spiritual meaning and, for some, social mobility in a rapidly industrializing economy.
It is in this Venn diagram of yearnings that we find one of the initial instances of Spiritualism in two adolescent girls, the Fox Sisters. The year is 1848 and Margaretta “Maggie” Fox, fourteen, and Kate, her eleven-year-old sister, report a series of knocks and rappings coming from within walls of their room. Claiming mediumship, the Fox family welcomes into its home swarms of onlookers, from ardent believers and befuddled locals to skeptical scientists intent on discrediting the phenomenon as a hoax. The sisters tour throughout New England and admission to see the young ghost-whisperers is one dollar, equivalent to about thirty five dollars today. Most onlookers come away either entirely enraptured or begrudgingly accepting. It is not until 1888 that the oldest, Maggie, publicly recants, going so far as to demonstrate how she and her sister developed a system of cracking their toes at opportune intervals. I find myself less interested in the ethics of the Fox Sisters’ enterprise than in the historical context in which they were located. I see two young women low on the socio-economic ladder finding the prospect of either toiling in the stagnant air of a factory or sequestered in a parlor while perfecting their embroidery utterly unfulfilling. I see them as radical pioneers, wading into a precarious unknown as they carve out an alternative path outside the stifling sexist gridlock to which they are expected to acquiesce.
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve progressed very far from the world the Fox Sisters inhabited: a world of industrialized, measurable systems—that perhaps began as life-enhancing, but have devolved into life-destroying—and systems that are organic and far less measurable. Hilma’s Ghost posits alternative creative and spiritual practices as tools for individual and collective transformation by celebrating the esoteric and the unquantifiable. What the Fox Sisters exemplified and what Hilma’s Ghost awards are methods of mitigating top-down systems hell-bent on limiting our aspirations and emancipation.