Joe Coleman at the Palais de Tokyo
Paris, France
February 1st to March 11th

By Antonio Meza

Beneath the 19th-century-style moustache and beard, the black leather coat and baroque vest full of pins, we find the face of Joe Coleman.

This middle-aged artist is actually an outstandingly skillful, bitter-sweet teenager who spends hours drawing and painting his vision of the world we live in. Such were my thoughts upon finishing my visit to the opening of his exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last Thursday, February 1st. I was there that night to meet him and his wife Whitney. They were both friendly and welcoming as they chatted with fans and drank champagne.

This was his first show in France, but not in Europe. He said he wasn’t interested in “contemporary art.” Not that he has anything bad to say about it, he’s just simply not interested.

Nevertheless, the Palais de Tokyo has chosen to display his works within a very eclectic collection of contemporary art, including personal exhibitions by Michel Blazy and Tatiana TrouvÈ, along with some collective works such as the “Grow your own” micro-nations project and “Music for Plants”, both presented by Peter Coffin.

The room with Coleman’s paintings was packed. His work leaves you anything but indifferent. Although the other artists may also have some surprises in store, you can still keep your typical bored Parisian face intact when you walk by their works. Coleman’s, however, is attention-grabbing. It’s meant to be shocking. He’s definitely not an artist for everybody, but those who share a passion for the grotesque and other “outsiders” are sure to be enthralled. At any rate, the French public was certainly intrigued.

Coleman has an Irish cultural background and it shows. His work is narrative in the way only Catholics can be. Anyone who’s ever seen one of those famous paintings from the Middle Ages showing “the life of the Saints” will know what I mean. Joe Coleman seems to be inspired by this very kind of artwork, but with the difference that instead of saints, he talks about the lives of Charles Manson (1988), Jane Mansfield (1997) or John Dillinger (1999).

His work has a highly baroque and religious element to it, and reminded me somewhat of Paris’s Notre Dame. My roommate’s approach, however, was much different – more mystical. To him, it looked like a Tibetan Mandalay. And in fact, I kind of agree with him. The overall geometry and color of Coleman’s compositions recalls Tibetan aesthetic principles.

Although the riot of colors and figures in the paintings can sometimes seem overwhelming, the subject matter itself is rather monochromatic. Everything that gives off a scent of “scandal” or “sin” can be found in Coleman’s paintings: murderers, rapists, bloodshot eyes, demons with serpent-like penises, etc. It seems like he’s trying to exorcise violence while giving it a name and face; screaming at the top of his lungs about it like some street preacher in Piccadilly Circus or Times Square: “The end of the world is at hand!”

But his work also packs plenty of punch in the details. The closer you get, the more you see: faces, cartoons, text, collage, etc. Everything is done with the patience and skill of a master.

One of the last pieces in the exhibition is a painting entitled “I Am Joe’s Fear of Disease” (2001). Yet not even there did I feel a hint of the vulnerability I glimpsed in his eyes as we spoke: hiding beneath the long beard is a boyish face. What I saw was a man in contact with his inner child, using colorful paintings to denounce what’s wrong in Western society.


Thirsty : April 2008 : Inside the Odditorium: A conversation with Joe Coleman and Whitney Ward - Part 2

Thirsty : March 2008 : Inside the Odditorium: A conversation with Joe Coleman and Whitney Ward - Part 1

Thirsty : July 2007 : Joe Coleman - "Internal Digging" : KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin

Thirsty : September 2006 : Joe Coleman Featured Interview




All opinions expressed by Antonio Meza are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

fitness equipment