On April 9, 1787 a 38-year-old Goethe spent the day touring the Villa Palagonia. Several decades after the estate’s initial construction, Francesco Ferdinando II Gravina, Prince of Palagonia, adorned the site with innumerable statues of monsters. Mythical creatures, hunchbacked beasts, and all manner of animal-human hybrids were given free rein to mock, jeer and carouse. This was in 1749, coincidentally also the year of Goethe’s birth. Goethe describes the villa and its creator in terms of “madness,” “mania,” “lunacy,” “delirium,” and “the bad taste and folly of an eccentric mind.” The poet was so repulsed by this landscape of grotesques, in fact, that he could not help but go on at length about it in his journal, wherein he produces a gem of an entry that is as much teratology and it is topology. It is almost as if, who can say, some part of him delighted in what his intellect sought to reject.
I think of this episode any time I have the good fortune to visit an art environment. Goethe’s judgments about the villa are laughably misguided, but he does us a great service in perfectly capturing the visceral shock of entering a space so singular that it strikes us truly alien. And, it must be admitted, he is probably not too far off in his surmising that Palagonia’s chapel holds the key to all its other parts: “Only in the brain of a religious fanatic could it have grown to such rampant proportions.” What this misses, however, is that such a realm is not created simply by dint of the idée fixe of fanaticism but by way of its itinerant cousin—ecstacy. In this instance, the word should remind us not so much of pleasure than of its originary meaning, “to stand outside oneself.” So what seems most foreign to us in such environments is precisely that we are standing in another’s “outside himself.”
This was, to my enormous gratification, just my experience on a recent visit to Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. The trip to the garden was arranged as a Father’s Day gift by my wife, Heather, and it being my first time there I was not entirely sure what to expect. In my days of collecting self-taught art I had, of course, come across Finster’s work with an almost exhausting regularity. In all honesty, while I found many of his pieces very likeable, I was never gripped by his work in any meaningful way. But for three days and two nights I was granted a remarkable degree of freedom to explore the grounds where Finster produced his life’s work, and every moment seemed to amplify something essential for me in art. While it is tempting to think of that “outside” of ecstasy as this crucial thing, I think that is in fact something extra and unguaranteed. Ecstasy is a potlatch expenditure. More basic and therefore more easily overlooked is the simple fact that artworks are made, indeed, by working. It was with this truism that I found myself sitting in Paradise Garden.
I arrived on a Monday, when the Garden is closed to the public, but had been left a key for entry. I let myself in, happy that my initial exploration would be mine alone. Pathways, whimsies and sculptures seemed at first more grown than crafted. All was unhurried. A workshop and numerous sheds were stocked with rusted over equipment. Though I knew a great deal of restoration must have been done, I could well imagine every bit and bob rested just where Finster had left it. It felt in one respect like the mausoleum of a man’s final days. Yet no dread came of this impression. Here, after all, was where the artist worked at creating, and in this sort of working there is an utmost vitality and, yes, there is ecstasy. Finster’s life is in even the smallest cranny of Paradise Garden.
Before painting, Finster repaired bicycles and similar machines. There is utility in such things. One day while refurbishing a bike, he noticed a spot of paint on his forefinger that resembled a face. It spoke, telling Finster to “paint sacred art.” He laid down his old tools, actually cementing many within a walkway, and devoted himself to new instruments. In this origin is the “use” of his painting, ultimately activated more by viewership than visions. Finster, to give just one example, was delighted for his art to grace the cover of Talking Heads’ Little Creatures, because everyone who bought the album was sure to see the numerous biblical verses he had incorporated into the imagery. What counted, quite literally, was proliferation. Still, mechanical reproduction was plainly insufficient. Dynamic proliferation sees the production of individuated bodies, making a marriage with inventiveness. Hence the crux of Finster’s paradise: the inventor creates, in the Creator is salvation. As an inventor of images Finster acted as a godly extension, and the world in turn became an extension of him. Elvis Presley, Coke-a-Cola, all worldly things were the cogs and flywheels of his invention. And each invention was carefully numbered, as though the number itself was a holy significant, until at last came the final tally of 46,991.
As evening came on I found myself content to wander about the mosaic garden. Captivated by a mound of grinning concrete faces topped with strange headwear, I made a few rough sketches, imaging them as Phrygian peasants or foot soldiers of Atlantis. Then for a long while I sat, considering my impressions of Paradise Garden. It occurred to me that a considerable amount of the artwork throughout the place was not Finster’s at all but that of friends and visitors. At one point, as I was on the phone with Heather, I had turned a corner to meet a much faded Purvis Young painting. It was the size of a barn. An elevated covered walk, called the “rolling chair ramp,” comprises a gallery of artists who had left works as gifts for Finster. He dutifully nailed each one up, frequently writing the artist’s name and phone number beside their piece. Would anyone still answer a call from this odd museum? Now in the mosaic garden I absently pushed a pencil stub about, searching for shapes, wondering at the rude business of making art and putting it out into the world.
Occasionally my work routine ebbs, and I’ve come to consider these rests simply as another part of the creative process. But the time comes when it is intolerable, and then I have to find my way back into doing the work, building up yet again an array of small efforts that necessarily precede the painting itself. This reentry is frequently unpleasant. Drawing goes poorly. Ideas go nowhere. I’m not quite back in the habit of letting my own practices take me by surprise, and so I’m a long way still from where my ecstasy is likeliest to appear, if it is to appear at all. The only thing for it is to press on. Needless to say, I do not share Finster’s belief in a visionary use for art. In fact, proliferation causes me a bit of embarrassment. I instead tend to see art as fundamentally useless, a truly wasteful practice. It is not the waste of the garbage heap, mind you, but a sloughing off of phenomenological excess. What compels me to create is the very thing that so often frustrates creation: I believe in futility. I ask myself, “What’s the point of making art, anyway?” and receive no answer. These are decisive moments, because I might very well give up but so far have continued to choose the possibilities offered by that silence. I work to no ready end. I work to keep working.
Before long I laid my notebook aside. Here were those fits and starts of beginning again. As night fell strings of lights began to glow, casting everything in peaceful warmth. I was in someone else’s “outside himself,” a space of creation that wasn’t mine—and for that reason alone it offered a singular comfort. Perhaps it was a happenstance comfort that might just as easily have been the repulsion felt by Goethe at Palagonia, but it is difficult, not to mention needless, for me to imagine it as anything other than as I experienced it. Paradise Garden offers rest in the shape of a workshop, two contradictory elements that resolve themselves in a specifically situated intimacy. When I said earlier that I had never really been gripped by Finster’s work, I think it must be this matter of intimacy that I missed in those pieces I so often came across. Though direct products of his particular ecstasy, when encountered at a remove from their birthing site each individualized work was for me effectively abstracted from Finster’s labors of proliferation. I had failed to locate the “work” within each painting. Then, by surprise, the work located me. If Finster’s ultimate desire was to create converts, let me be evidence the artist is still at work. Not converted to a metaphysical belief, perhaps, but to a greater appreciation of that belief, its believer, and his creations. And, true, it was not by way of any specific imagery or words, but by visiting our common terrain of extravagant invention that I came to this conversion. The visit isn’t necessary for everyone, of course, but there can be no question of Paradise Garden’s due status as a beacon for anyone needing to stand in another’s “outside himself.” However they may come to it, I am joyed that Finster’s numbers continue to proliferate.