‘Ghost Stories: The Disembodied Spirit’

Visual Arts Review

Arts Review

"Ghost Stories: The Disembodied Spirit"

Austin Museum of Art – Downtown, through Nov. 28

Maybe it was the empty doorway or the shadow that played across the wall. Maybe it was the dark and deserted road or the abandoned building, its signs of human habitation fading into stain and decay. You knew that you were alone and yet you sensed something with you, a presence that you couldn't explain, of someone or something invisible to your eyes.

These are the days in which our thoughts turn more readily to such things, to the possibility of souls lost to time roaming the land with us, of spooks and haunts and things that go bump in the night, and the Austin Museum of Art has brought an exhibition tailor-made for the season. "Ghost Stories: The Disembodied Spirit" assembles works of the past century and a half in which artists have captured or sought to represent manifestations of life beyond the mortal plane: spectres, shades, and angels. The show offers some engaging evocations of the unearthly: a rocking chair that floats above the floor, discarded silverware hovering over a dinner table, spirit photographs in which the faces and forms of transparent beings rest or stand near living subjects, a figure of pure white light, recordings of seances in which dead artists are summoned, some bona fide ghost stories related through headphones, and lots of atmospheric images of ruined houses, shadow-drenched landscapes, stairways – just the kinds of places where one might feel the presence of one absent from life.

In some particularly effective works, such as the photographs from Sally Mann's "Deep South" series, we don't see anything overtly supernatural, but the mood is such that we feel that phantom presence. The depth of darkness and sense of isolation in Mann's images draw us into places where the past haunts the present. Even when the works are staged, as with Anna Gaskell's "half-life" series, which plays off Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Alfred Hitchcock's film Rebecca, the worn carpets, dusty chandeliers, and looming shadows create a space of history preserved for the dead, where at the foot of the staircase or around the next corner you may come face to face with the dear departed who have yet to leave. Such works inspire that pleasurable shiver of a good ghost story.

Alas, the text accompanying the displayed works takes much of the fun out of the exhibit. Instead of building on the viewer's very natural interest in the supernatural or developing the sense of atmosphere in so many of the works themselves, curator Alison Ferris dissects the images in a kind of bloodless academese. With state-of-the-art critical phrases such as "Western perspective," "cultural phenomena," "encroaching technological alienation," and "received notions of representation and vision," she strips away the mystery that these works seek to evoke and leaves them as exposed tricks, lifeless bodies without the spirits that animated them.

The viewer seeking to preserve a little mood might best approach the works without reading the text and letting their eerie, sometimes unsettling imagery wash over you. You might find yourself finally able to see what up to now you had only been able to feel.

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"Ghost Stories: The Disembodied Spirit", Alison Ferris, Sally Mann, Anna Gaskell

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