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Howard Finster Elvis (#442) 1976 Enamel on 55 gallon drum lid Thomas E. Scanlin Collection
Howard Finster Elvis (#442) 1976 Enamel on 55 gallon drum lid Thomas E. Scanlin Collection (Courtesy of AVAM)

When I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid last year, I walked countless hallways filled with child-cradling Virgin Marys and crucified Christs. I never felt I had to share the artists' Catholic theology or monarchist politics; I could enjoy these paintings not as doctrinal manifestos but as heart-piercing metaphors for parenthood and death.

I had the same reaction while previewing the new exhibit, "The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster," which opened last weekend at the American Visionary Art Museum. There's no way I'm going to share Howard Finster's Protestant fundamentalism or Ingo Swann's New Age mysticism, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy their imaginative renderings of an immense universe where good struggles with evil.

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The walls of this exhibit are covered with quotes from the artists and other commentators, who make implausible claims about psychic "remote viewing" and supernatural sources of human creativity. It's best to ignore these, and focus on the actual art, which is more hindered than helped by such superstition. The art itself is far more powerful, far more grounded in reality, and far funnier than the museum labels would suggest.

In North America, there's probably no better known outsider or self-taught artist than Finster, if only because he created the album covers for R.E.M.'s "Reckoning" and the Talking Heads' "Little Creatures." Paradise Garden, his personal museum in rural Summerville, Georgia, became a magnet for rock stars, art collectors, and lost souls. Later in his career, he started churning out what he called "souvenir art," multiple variations on a few simple themes to feed the demand for his work. These were inevitably lacking in inspiration and diminished his reputation, but to see his best work at Paradise Garden was a treat indeed.

The large number of Finster's better works, which fill AVAM's large, second-floor gallery, is the best reason to see this exhibit. His portraits of Elvis Presley and Daniel Boone may not be realistic but do evoke the shining innocence of these blue-collar Southerners as young idealists before they turned into complicated old men. His grand allegory of the Soviet and American empires standing as giant black devils above a river of people fleeing for safety is metaphoric in the most stimulating sense.

His 'Castle of Words,' a four-story, six-foot-tall wooden tower carved with portraits of Jesus and Finster himself, has windows through which we can peek into another world. Most striking are his "shadow boxes," where he painted onto two or three layers of glass to create three-dimensional heavens, not unlike Joseph Cornell's boxes.

Tom Scanlin, who lent several key works to the gallery, has the world's largest collection of Finster works outside the Finster family. Scanlin first met his fellow Georgian in the late '80s, and the two men quickly became friends, even though Scanlin was an educated art collector and self-described "backslid Catholic," while Finster was a handyman and backwoods preacher.

"After I'd known him a while," Scanlin divulged last week in Baltimore, "he backed off on the preaching, because he could tell I respected him, even I didn't share his religion. We all have our own definitions of what life's all about, but even if your definition isn't his, I don't think you can appreciate his art unless you respect his viewpoint, because his beliefs fueled his art. When I first met him, his conversation was more full of fire and brimstone, but as he met more different kinds of people, he became more accepting and less condemning. When he met Allen Ginsberg, who introduced himself as a gay man, expecting a reaction, Howard just paused and said, 'What is, is.'

"I came along at the right time. He was worried that the Garden wouldn't outlast him, and he wanted to make sure someone would take care of his art and writing. He knew I didn't need the money, so I wouldn't turn around and resell the art. He trusted me to show it in its best light. The Garden did decline after he died [in 2001] but the Paradise Garden Foundation has garnered $700,000 in grants to refurbish it. So it's still a rich stew."

The exhibit has a few more highlights. To celebrate St. Francis' love of animals, striking sculptures of a bear, elk, bird and pig are provided by three legendary artists: New Mexico's Leroy Archuleta, Kentucky's Linville Barker, and Georgia's O.L. Samuels. From AVAM regular Tom Duncan comes a magnificent shrine to his own migraine headaches: Atop a metal-grid pedestal and gold-brocade torso is a reverse-mold face, and atop that head is a twirling carousel of lightning bolts and burning airplanes.

Two fine examples from North Carolina colored-pencilist Minnie Evans are tucked away in a corner. Switzerland's Christine Sefolosha contributes two mysterious pictures of multiple creatures seeming to emerge from a nighttime fog. The avant-garde architect Paolo Soleri is represented by large pastel drawings of imagined buildings and by seven of his bronze bells.

Baltimore's own "Dr. Bob" Hieronimus hauled his 'Historic View of Baltimore' from the shadowy recesses of the War Memorial Building to the entry hallway to the main museum building. "I'm so glad it's finally seeing the light of day—literally," he said last week. Spanning three door-sized panels, it's a playful look at the city's origins, with Lord Calvert sharing the landscape with American Indians and Buddha. Sailing across the Technicolor ripples of the harbor are both George Washington in his Delaware-crossing dinghy and the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.

Beyond these works, however, the quality drops off pretty sharply. Jimi Hendrix's doodles are included only because his name is attached. Several religious sects are represented by not very interesting sci-fi-inspired art. A few scientists have created sculptures and drawings based on mathematical principles, but they seem more like puzzle solutions than real art. And too often the museum is willing to settle for photo reproductions of art rather than the original work itself.

This new exhibit does mark a turning point for AVAM. For most of its life, it has been a borrowing museum with only a small permanent collection, but three new acquisitions, unveiled as part of this exhibit, add greatly to AVAM's holdings. The third part of the main building's exterior mosaic was unveiled this month. Supervised by artist Mari Gardner and assembled with interns from Baltimore's juvenile penal system, the new wall facing Federal Hill is a shimmering vortex of night sky, not unlike Vincent Van Gogh's swirling skies.

The second big addition is a batch of Ingo Swann's New Age paintings. When Swann died last year, his family decided to donate his paintings to AVAM, which displays several of them in the new exhibit. It's a good sign for the museum's future if the families of outsider artists see Baltimore as an obvious home for orphaned work.

Swann's niece Elly Flippen, who was in Baltimore for the opening, explained: "We didn't want the paintings to disappear or to be kept in a private house. We wanted the world to have the experience we've had of just walking in and seeing them when you want. Everything this museum is doing reflects what my uncle believed."

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The third big addition is a new work commissioned by AVAM: 'Stargate' by Steve Heller. This giant, gray-metal ring with flashing red lights will sit atop the stone wall in a museum courtyard, inviting the viewer to another dimension—or at least Federal Hill. The sculpture boasts a playful sense of humor, a welcome antidote to the exhibit's preachier pronouncements, inviting us to the future through a collection of old car parts—specifically the taillights from '59 Mercurys and '65 Mustangs.

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"It's retro-futuristic," chuckles Heller. "All that stuff from the '50s depicted what the future would be like, and that future is now. Cellphones were once science fiction. Every decade deserves its own future."

"The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis To Finster" is at the American visionary art museum through aug. 30, 2015.

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