Bethlehem, PA

Howard Finster

Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University Art Galleries

Marking the third anniversary of the death of the self-taught visionary artist Howard Finster (1916–2001), this ambitious tripartite retrospective grappled with the pressing problem of measuring aesthetic quality within the increasingly unmanageable field of outsider art, which has in recent years become synonymous with bloated expos that market “otherness” at the expense of curatorial responsibility.

More than any other so-called outsider artist, Finster—a Southern Baptist evangelical preacher and jack-of-all-trades who received a divine calling to become an artist at the age of sixty—has forced the issue of quality by forging an oeuvre and style that were compromised by commercial success. In producing almost fifty thousand works of art and constructing Paradise Garden, a three-acre environment on his property in Summerville, Georgia, Finster himself was far less concerned with the issue of quality than with tirelessly preaching his personal version of the Gospel through a variety of artmaking strategies. These shows staged concurrently at the Lehigh University Art Galleries followed the artist’s journey from virtual anonymity to simultaneous art-world and pop-cultural success, unapologetically naming definitive masterworks. This was a studied curatorial risk taken in the name of rescuing Finster’s legacy from the vast sprawl of his own output, which toward the end of his life relied on a family-operated atelier system in order to meet market demand.

The most accurate presentation of Finster’s vivid sensibility was found in “Revealing the Masterworks and The Finster Cosmology: Howard’s Brain,” which mixed major works with others included to establish a biographical context. United by Joanne DeCheser’s illustrated timeline, this installation began with early pieces—marked by a muted palette and sparing use of text—and followed the artist’s career through to the emergence of a mature style in which flat, brightly colored portraiture and apocalyptic landscapes are activated by endless streams of organically integrated text. The latter describe a creed that blends the New Testament with visions of “other worlds.” This exhibition revealed that American pop-cultural mainstays like Coke bottles and Elvis were just as effective in communicating Finster’s revivalist wake-up call as were images of Jesus, heaven, and hell. It is in this context that his famous album covers, created collaboratively for REM and Talking Heads, may be seen as an integral part of his development.

Also displayed in the Main Gallery were twenty-five magnum opuses, including elements recovered from the now-disintegrating Paradise Garden such as Angel From the Garden #2122, n.d., presented in a more traditional gallery setting in an attempt to establish their preeminence as masterworks. This selection included some of the most powerful examples of the artist’s work, each reflecting the central elements of his mature concerns. Satin Cast Out of Hell, 1981, epitomizes Finster’s stock Baptist fire-and-brimstone message through a combination of textual pronouncements and a harrowing image of the underworld, while the self-portrait in This Howard in his Winter Cloths, 1985, is a powerful expression of his consciousness. But while these discrete paintings made sense in the installation, larger works culled from Paradise Garden like Coke Bottle From Garden, 1989, seemed out of place in this conventional interior. While this portion of the survey successfully identified Finster’s most accomplished works, its bid to recuperate quality within the artist’s oeuvre was undercut by a curmudgeonly insistence on reviving the retrograde discourse of “mastery.”

The curators’ effective presentation of Finster as an artist vitally connected both to his local religious community and to American popular culture ultimately contradicted their exhaustive claims for his status as a master outsider artist, a term originally coined in Europe to characterize mentally ill and socially isolated practitioners. This pathological, inherently marginalizing stereotype has never been an accurate designation for such a powerful communicator, healer, and visionary as we were presented with here: Finster deserves much better.

Jenifer Borum