CULTURE & ARTS

Step Right Up To Joe Coleman's Painted Freak Show

Meet the dark and twisted contemporary artist who paints serial killers and celebrities.

When artist Joe Coleman lost his mother, he honored her legacy with what he referred to in an interview as a "pretty intense funeral ritual." 

The performance, inspired by sideshow tradition, took place at an art theater, the Boston Film and Video Arts Foundation. Audience members stared at a paper screen plastered with projections of old 1950s pornographic films and images. "Projected on that screen were porno images of the sexual act -- the act that created me," Coleman explained. "So it was sort of like the big bang, theory of creation."

Even bigger of a bang occurred moments later, when Coleman burst through the screen, hanging upside down on a harness, and then exploded himself in mid-air above the audience. "The harness is like the umbilical cord. My wife at the time cut the harness, which is what the wife does, with the connection to the mother."

To conclude the ritual, there were rats. "I bit the heads off these two mice that were named mommy and daddy. Mommy's head I swallowed because I wanted to incorporate her, because of my problems with my father I spat his head out."

Pretty intense, indeed. 

Though he's made quite the impression in performance, Joe Coleman is primarily a painter, whose work goes heavy on the pain. The artist is known for his meticulously rendered portraits of outlaws, criminals and goddesses, ranging from bombshell Jayne Mansfield to serial killer Ed Gein. The works have been praised by notable individuals including mega-dealer Larry Gagosian and sinister cult leader Charles Manson, who said of Coleman's work: "His art is something else. Praise! Praise! He’s a caveman in a spaceship!"

Coleman's portraits, never sketched or planned out in advanced, are teeming with detail like an infestation, combining images, text and three-dimensional relics to yield dynamic biographies of his subjects. He works approximately eight hours to fill a square inch of canvas, using a two-hair brush and a jeweler's magnifying lens to perfectly plot every microscopic brushstroke. His most recent piece, a life-size portrait of his wife Whitney, took four years to create. 

Coleman was brought up in an Irish Catholic household in Norwalk, Connecticut. His father was a veteran and "somewhat of an artist," according to Coleman. "He did these paintings of lighthouses and ocean scenes that he would often use to pay his bar tab. My mother pretty much supported the family since he had a hard time holding down a job." She worked as a secretary.

Coleman's first art-related memory occurred at St. Mary's Church, where the Coleman family would go for Sunday mass. One day, Coleman's mother passed him a pad, pencil and box of crayons to occupy the time. That was when he noticed the stations of the Cross represented in relief all around him, leading up to the altar. Coleman realized the entire congregation was worshipping a violent depiction of Jesus being brutally tortured. And he was moved. "There was something holy about the violence that we -- or at least I -- was experiencing there," Coleman said in an interview with Susanne Pfeffer. Coleman copied the image. The only color he needed from the crayon box was red.

"There was something about the pain and the suffering and the violence that somehow drew me to it," Coleman told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. "There was a lot of pain at home and maybe it was a representation of that, but in a way that was removed from the actual source, so it could be some kind of symbolically expressed version of personal suffering."

Not long after, his mother gifted him a book on the work of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Coleman's work clearly draws from Bosch's fastidious attention to detail, and taste for all things nightmarish and bizarre. Which is to say, it was a very good gift. 

In youth, Coleman was also fascinated by P.T. Barnum, whose Barnum Festival was located just next door to Coleman in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Coleman recalls the mummies and "deformed babies" that occupied the Barnum tents and museums. Coney Island, wax museums and sideshow culture also made their mark, much of which is evidenced by the funeral rite mentioned above. 

And speaking of funerals, Coleman also had a brief stint conducting autopsies in Budapest, Hungary. You can see related footage in the '90s documentary "Rest in Pieces" chronicling Coleman's work. "The dissection was about learning the anatomy, but doing the autopsies was, for me, an attempt to find a trace of the soul in the body."

When asked about what exactly he was looking for in those autopsies, Coleman responded: "As I talk to you I'm looking at my own hand. I can see the flesh and I can see the blood vessels and some of the protrusions of the bones. It moves at my will, but when does that stop? What makes this meat ... what gives it life? That's something I've always been fascinated by. What is this amazing thing that is life?"

Whatever he was looking for, he didn't find it. 

Unrelated to his quest for the soul, Coleman isn't religious anymore. His mother was excommunicated from the church after getting a divorce, and Coleman soon became disillusioned with the contradictions he found embedded in Christian rhetoric. These days he doesn't believe in a capital "G" God. He believes in gods. 

"I was brought up, like much of America, with this idea of one all good God," Coleman said. "But in previous cultures there were many different gods that would encompass the many different aspects of humanity, gods of rage, jealousy, war." Coleman describes his subjects as modern incarnates of gods and goddesses, whether figures of violence like notorious child killer Mary Bell, or figures of sexualized celebrity, like Anna Nicole Smith.

"There is something about Jane Mansfield and Anna Nicole Smith that embodied this goddess figure," said Coleman. "They are worshipped as goddesses by the culture. People collect artifacts about them; they're celebrated in a way that the Greek gods were. You're not allowed to formally worship them in a church, but society needs these gods. So they're nevertheless made into these deities which are necessary in our collective subconscious. Whether we're allowed to or not, we will make them."

Coleman's theory may provide solace to those who feel inexplicably compelled to follow the Kult of Kardashian. They too, in Coleman's eyes, are goddesses of our time. "To me they are not as fascinating as either Jane or Anna Nicole. But nevertheless, by the fact that they are worshipped makes them worthy. Why is that? What is our need and what does that say about us? It hasn't inspired me to paint them yet but I don't know what the future will hold. I might." 

If Coleman ever did decide to paint the Kardashian ladies, they'd be far from the most reviled subjects in his portfolio. From Manson to Bell to Albert Fish, Coleman's subjects are often the most unsavory kinds of legends, those whose names are whispered rather than said, names immortalized thanks to gruesome acts of violence. He calls these subjects the "losers of society." 

"I'm not trying to free anyone or lessen the atrocity," Coleman clarifies. "What I'm trying to do is exorcise the pain and the horror and the suffering. Going back to my Catholicism, I was brought up with this idea about the holiness of suffering. The great saints of Catholicism suffered these great atrocities -- their eyes gauged out, their breasts cut off, Christ himself being nailed to a cross. There is horrible suffering there but there is something being left out of that story and that is the shadow self. What about that Roman soldier who nailed Christ to the cross? That's a story of great pain too. That needs to be exorcised."

It's risky business to provide a platform of immortal visibility for history's most notorious monsters. "Then again..." says the girl who's mid-way through KCRW's "Charles Manson's Hollywood" podcast. Maybe there is something within us that's inexplicably pulled to the darkness of these clearly tortured individuals, something interested in how they chose to confront the cruelty of the world we all inhabit.

"I try to go into it without making any kind of judgment at all," Coleman reiterated. "I try to identify with the subjects, it's a little bit akin to method acting. I take aspects of myself that connect with the subject, try to put myself in their place and try not to make any judgment at all. I try to let them speak through me. I am just a vessel."

An obedient vessel he is. Gazing upon one of Coleman's jam-packed paintings feels, in a way, like looking at a slab of meat and slowly realizing it's swarming with ants. The longer you stare, the more minuscule marks and specifics come to the surface. Some details are so small they can't be processed by the human eye. 

Over the years he's spent painting, Coleman has grown more precise in his movements, adept in his ability to draft a painted world as detailed as the one we live in. "My fingers move in tinier brushstrokes and I'm looking for more and more information on the surface. While the works are getting bigger and bigger, the brushstrokes are getting tinier and tinier. My fingers used to move an inch and now they move like one twelfth of an inch."

Coleman views each work, in a sense, as an unorthodox biography. While a book progresses page by page, or a film scene by scene, Coleman's visual compendiums come at you all at once, adhering to whatever logic or chronology the viewer employs. "It's up to you to journey in whatever direction you feel," he says, "and everyone will experience the painting differently. The more you look into it the more it reveals itself to you."

His favorite subject of late is his wife of fifteen years, Whitney, a blonde knockout whose become both his partner and muse. His life-size portrait of her will be on view during Art Basel Miami Beach next month, but his earlier works include "Love Song," an ode to their blossoming courtship. Not surprisingly, Coleman's love song is far from the sentimental Hallmark romance you'd expect from most heart-eyed lovers. For starters, there are cameos by king of sideshow Ward Hall, "bearded lady" Percilla Bejano, a sadistic dentist and a snapshot of Joe conducting an autopsy. Along with personal images and text recounting Joe and Whitney's budding relationship, the piece is adorned with absurdist personal objects like Whitney's blood and an old cyst Joe had removed. On the back of the painting, a piece of fabric is draped around the painting's backside -- it's a sheet they once had sex on.

Encountering the painting feels like uncovering a banal yet loaded relic in your back pocket, and encouraging the memories that, once galvanized, gush out. "There are both these fetish objects and the actual painting narrative, the magic elements with the narrative elements," Coleman explains. 

Coleman is the kind of bona fide artist a kid would dream up, though perhaps in a nightmare, from his curly-cue mustache and propensity for black clothing to his relentless obsession with capturing the world's visible and invisible elements in increasingly exact detail. He's an outsider fiercely devoted to his fellow outsiders, though equally intrigued by the universal elements of suffering and fantasy that shape us all. He's both artist and artwork, ringleader and freak. "I live my art," Coleman says. "Every moment of my life is part of my art. All of it. I can't separate. Life is theater, for me."

See Coleman's work at Deitch and Gagosian's upcoming exhibition "Unrealism," in the Moore Building in the Miami Design Districtduring the week of Art Basel Miami Beach, December 3 to December 6. 

Also on HuffPost:

PHOTO GALLERY
Outsider Art Fair Preview
CONVERSATIONS