We can be absolutely certain that Reverend Howard Finster hailed from parts unknown, even if those parts resemble rural southern U.S.A. The mystery surrounding him expands with each piece of art, signed “Howard Finster from God” or “Howard Finster Man of Visions” or “Howard Finster World’s Minister Of Folk Art Church Inc,” among other outlandish and intriguing things. He might come from a charming tourist attraction he displays intimate knowledge of with “Jeff and Jane Camp on Planet U Run.” The chaotic and over-populated landscape resembles Finster’s own alien homestead in Summerville, Georgia, which bursts with handmade buildings and sculptures onto which are affixed paintings, wood carvings, wood burnings and artifacts ranging widely from the buttons of a pea coat to melted cathode-ray tubes. The spectacle of accumulation is as powerful as the sheer otherness of Finster’s vision, which exists solely to transmit the word of God as Finster hears and sees it, and is frequented by a cast of characters such as Presidents Washington and Eisenhower, Henry Ford, Coca-Cola, Satan and, of course, Elvis Presley.
It’s impossible here to talk about one particular work; there is simply too much to say about his “sermons in paint” and “preaching diagrams.” It’s also difficult not to wonder if Finster completely accepted everything that ever popped into his head as the word of God, an absolute truth allowed to flow through him as a gift from the heavens to mankind. Each bit of debris and plank of wood or broken mirror, each haphazard construction of words is imbued with divinity. Walking into this show feels like stealing a glimpse of some underground messiah’s inner sanctum, and you realize how difficult it must be to wear such a mantle. Finster’s work has its own tractor-enamel shine, it’s own lingua franca which expresses a depth of belief most of us sinners are plain unaware of, a belief filled with great joy and equal gravity. Whether or not the work touches us, we can also be absolutely certain that Reverend Howard Finster holds devout belief in the word of God as communicated through the work of Howard Finster, and that belief—however foreign it may feel—is worth seeing. (Damien James)
Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St, Exhibit Hall, (312)744-6630, through September 26.