Howard Finster:Man of Visions

All Roads One Road Headed the Same Way, enamel on wood, 1978.

Everything is Sacred

Just as these questions seem to plague those who attempt to categorize Finster as an artist, questions of categorization come up in looking at the subject matter in the art itself. How, one might ask, can Howard Finster reconcile paintings of John the Baptist and visions of hell with those of Elvis and George Washington, and call them all "sacred art"?

Howard Finster's definition of what is sacred, as judged from his work, is one which includes Elvis and George Washington without the slightest hint of irony. In fact, one might guess that the New York art world's fascination with Finster stems precisely from his refreshing lack of irony. Finster's Elvis paintings, for example, are sincere tributes meant to draw the public's attention to an ultimately higher message of Christian salvation. "It's very simple," says Finster, "When Christ called his disciples, he called fishermen, he didn't call nobody from a qualified university. He used common people to reveal parables. That's what I do; I use Elvis because I'm a fan of Elvis. Elvis was a great guy. By using him I get people's attention and they read my messages." (quoted in Gaver, p.73)

Finster here explains himself better than I can, and I'm from a "qualified university." It is indeed simple: he recognizes Christ's use of simple teaching techniques for uneducated people and emulates them in order to spread the word of the Lord. It doesn't stay simple, though: Finster claims to have been visited by Elvis' ghost in the mid-80's. The King approached him as he was working in his flower bed, but declined to stay and chat by saying, "Howard, I'm on a tight schedule." (Turner, p.202). This may begin to muddy the waters of Finster's "simple" theory, but he is, after all, a man of visions.

What is apparent when appraising Finster's choice of subject matter is that he makes no distinction between high and low culture, as we generally define these terms. In other words, Elvis is just as effective a vehicle for his message as St. John. By the same logic, Howard Finster the untrained handyman is as worthy a disciple of Christ as a classically-trained painter with a narrower definition of "sacred" subject matter. There is an obvious insistence on the accessibility of the work --- all the better to get the message of God across to the common man ---, but also a real blindness, on Finster's part, to the incompatability which others see in his art. Just as a Virginia Episcopalian might be shocked to see a sign for a laundra-mat in the Deep South which declares both "New Spin Dryers!" and "Jesus Saves!", the critics who have approached Finster's work perhaps spend too much time trying to decipher what he is up to with apparently contradictory subject matter. The point is that Finster sees no reason why a sermon shouldn't be written over a portrait Elvis --- "It's very simple..." he reminds us. It is a playful, yet emphatic, expression of faith which is intended to draw our attention and deliver a sermon.

Part of the fame Finster achieved in the 1980's was due to an apparent misunderstanding of the simplicity of his work. Finster became a favorite of the hip set, maybe because his mixture of so-called high and low culture seemed to fit neatly into the increasingly ironic celebration of "camp." One may interpret a work of art as one wishes, but Finster's paintings are anything but "camp-y"; they are startlingly sincere and passionate. To perceive irony in his work is to make a terrible mistake.

One painting in particular demonstrates Finster's all-embracing view. Called "All Roads One Road Headed the Same Way", this large work from 1978 is similar to his visions of Hell, yet here all that is shown is an exuberantly rendered sort of road map to the City of Heaven. Once again, it suggests a teaching tool, and the message is one of compassion and tolerance. There is the Methodist road, the Baptist road, the Presbyterian road, and even the Odd Fellows road, all depicted intersecting at some point before crossing a small ridge of mountains before the angel-inhabited city. Inscribed throughout patches of text which sound empathetic notes: "I SUFFER WITH ALL WHO SUFFER", "THE RICH AND THE POOR GO IN MY BOOK ON THE SAME PAGE", "I SEEK TO HELP ALL UNBELIEVERS IN GOD", "THERE IS NO LIVING THING THAT IS LEFT OUT OF MY DAILY PRAYERS", and, finally, "ALL THE MONEY AND HELP I WISH FOR IS TO BENEFIT OTHERS." The key to entering the City of God is belief, according to this work, no matter what the brand of faith may be. Likewise, as seen in the inscriptions, Finster is simply an empathetic cheerleader for faith.

In more general terms, Finster's entire philosophy of art may be summed up by that painting. All roads and all of his artistic subjects are headed the same way, essentially. The piece doesn't have to be a detailed map of the progress to salvation in order to perform its missionary function. Indeed, it might be the most powerful aspect of Finster's art that he is able to imbue even the most vacuous pop icon with a sense of the divine. The central metaphor comes from Christ's miracles, in which he transformed things (a corpse, common bread, etc.), and is the primary meaning of Finster's Paradise Garden, in which he has taken refuse and transformed it into sacred art. In fact, a trash barrel in the garden is emblazoned with scriptural verse and the double-entendre, "Jesus Saves."

One of Finster's more popular series was that of the Cadillac. They are plywood cut-outs of a Cadillac decorated in bold yellows and oranges with angels and stars covering the roof and fenders. One that I own (#27,000,462, by Finster's count) has written on the door: "HOWARD FINSTER'S CADALAC [sic] MESSAGE --- I NEVER HAD A WRECK OR A TICKET OR BEEN PUT IN JAIL. I NEVER BEEN DRUNK --- ALL I ASK THIS WORLD IS TO LIVE LIKE I LIVED AND WE COULD CLOSE ALL PRISIONS [sic] AND JAILS AND THROW AWAY THE KEYS GOD BLESS YOU ALL." This piece is a perfect example of Finster's simple strategy to share his vision. The Cadillac is figuratively and literally the vehicle for the message. Like the messages he would write on the side of his own car to advertise his tent revivals (Turner, p. 29), this emblematic vehicle is simultaneously the vessel of heaven-sent good tidings and a visual hook to grab the viewer. The text is highly personal, even a bit self-righteous, but the viewer/reader is addressed directly and the message is delivered. Thus, it is a "sermon in paint," and the use of a non-traditional icon for its transmission is used without irony. And if Finster is a second Noah, he would just as soon save life on the planet and the values and beliefs he deems essential in an old Caddy as in an ark.

Continue: Visions of Heaven and HellReturn to the beginning of Howard Finster: Man of Visions