A new show at Bushwick gallery Victori + Mo approaches the supernatural from a firmly grounded perspective. By exploring the ephemerality of memory and the power of belief, artist Langdon Graves walks a tricky line on the edges of the occult while still keeping a healthy dose of skepticism.
Graves has long been fascinated by belief in all its forms– her work has often focused on various religions, peoples’ relationships with religion, placebos, and mind-body healing practices. “One thing that I usually incorporate in my work is a very scientific approach to all these things. I do a lot of reading, a lot of research,” she said. For the work featured in this show, Graves became interested in “brushes with supernatural.”
In particular, she tapped into her own family’s memory for inspiration. Graves grew up listening to the ghost stories of her grandmother, a deeply skeptical woman who nevertheless was unsettled by the spirits she’d encountered in her lifetime. Graves kept returning to one story– when her grandmother was a child, her aunt passed away and her body was kept in the living room during the mourning process. Her grandmother remembered seeing a pair of gloves that had belonged to her dead aunt rise from a drawer and lay themselves on the dresser. Later she realized that the gloves had never been in the room at all, and that her dead aunt was still wearing them. “She is just as skeptical as I am,” said Graves. “I think this is why I love her stories so much and why she always sort of makes me second guess my own skepticism.”
Those gloves became a running symbolism for ghostly spirits in Graves’ work and are especially present in the drawings in this show. Disembodied hands are pictured translucently covering mirrors, crawling out of couches, or slyly holding a vase.
Other drawings show objects that her grandmother might have used, like a flower vase or old-fashioned lighter, suspended in space, “as if a floating fragment of a memory that doesn’t belong to any particular time or place–it just sort of floats around with other thoughts.” With slivers of shadows against a white background, the objects look Magritte-esque, seeming to open up to another world.
“My drawings are somewhat surreal, typically in the traditional way, in that they are drawn really realistically,” Graves explained. “There’s a lot of attention to detail and specifics, so then I can feature something that is less real.” The new pieces in the show feature moments of home life and fragments of memory. The gallery itself will also have a domestic vibe, with homey objects, like fragments of a table standing in a lone corner of the room.
Graves said she became more interested in exploring those supernatural stories only recently. After her grandmother suffered from a heart attack, she felt spurred to try to resurrect her memories. Conversations with her grandmother (whose memory was getting fuzzier) and other family members turned up different accounts of the ghost story, filtered over the years through many different listeners—for example, sometimes the gloves were remembered as white, other times violet. The memory itself became an amalgamation of other peoples’ recollections.
Still, for all her personal interest in her family’s ghost stories, Graves is, at heart, a skeptic. Even though she grew up in a devout family and attended Catholic school, she takes an approach to faith that’s more I’ll-believe-it-when-I see-it.
The title of the show, “Spooky Action at a Distance” speaks to the often strange relationship between science and mystery. The line is actually an Albert Einstein quote in which the physicist was talking about his unresolved relationship with quantum entanglements. More recently, pseudoscience groups have picked up on the same phenomenon as proof that human spirits live on after death.
“That really blurry line where science is going to have one thing to say about it and the believing community is going to have something else to say is what I’m supremely fascinated by,” Graves said. “My skeptical outlook places me in the materialist camp, but my connection to my grandmother’s stories of supernatural experiences offers a kind of emotional truth and wisdom that I can’t discount. I might not be convinced by someone else’s ghost stories, but I can’t un-believe the ones that belong to me.’
Spooky Action at A Distance, at Victori + Mo Gallery, 56 Bogart Street, May 20 through June 26.