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By: Sarah L. Myers

Thirsty first met Joe Coleman back in September 2006. It was our first issue and Joe was our lead interview. Since that premiere issue, Thirsty has covered Joe in nearly all of his exhibitions, appearances, and engagements. We were in New York for his multi-level exhibition at the Jack Tilton Gallery, at the Palais de Tokyo for the closing ceremonies, and at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin for a majestic showing of Joe’s most compelling and visceral pieces.

Photo: Anna Curtis

I spent a late January evening with Joe and his wife, Whitney Ward, at their home in Brooklyn, New York. The Odditorium, as it’s affectionately called, rests a few floors up in an unassuming brownstone. The apartment is part living space, part wax museum, and part art gallery. Taxidermy and mummified relics adorn the tops of bureaus. Medical specimens and oddities are displayed in glass casings. A lack of windows, along with the single bulb pointing up from the floor, perfectly showcases the room’s lush density. Life-sized wax figures of Charles Manson and Fidel Castro stand near the door, the former holding a knife - the latter, a cigar.

There’s a presence in the Odditorium. It feels intangibly alive. The figures, large and small, from the mannequins to the pickled punks, are being swaddled by the room. When you walk in, that’s how you feel - swaddled, almost as if the figures are radiating some kind of energy that covers you like a blanket. They have relationships - not just with each other, but with Joe and Whitney, who have strong emotional attachments to everything in the room. When the pieces are removed from the apartment for exhibition it “feels like the kids are away at camp,” says Whitney.

This incubator of creativity is an everyday source of inspiration for Joe, who works in a room just off the main area. A canvas nearly six feet tall leans comfortably on its easel, displaying just a few square inches of paint. This self-portrait will take Joe years to complete. He works for hours a day on these squares, bent over with jeweler’s lenses and a single-hair brush. Piles of books, cassettes, videos, and magazines lend information about his many subjects - past, present, and future.

After a tour of the room, where I was introduced to Joe and Whitney’s many companions, we sat down for a conversation that lasted well into the night.


Photo: Whitney Ward

Thirsty: The first thing I noticed when I came in is the piece that you’re working on. What is it?

Joe Coleman: Well, it’s probably my most ambitious painting yet. It’s the largest one, you know, that I’ve done, at least in the way that I’m working. The way I’ve been working for the past, like, eight or ten years now. It’s a life sized self-portrait, the size of a door, which probably is, has some significance, too, that it’s a doorway. You probably noticed when you looked at it. It’s easier when you see in person what a painting looks like when I’m working on it. But it’s just as if the thing is growing, you know, like a one-celled animal that’s infecting the surface. All’s you see is what’s painted. There’s no sketching on the surface. It’s just raw. So this painting is going to take about five years to complete. You know, like seeing a painting like the one that I did of Indian Larry, or this one here, the Cyclops painting, you know, that’s about a year. So if you multiply the size of that painting, because it’s done in the same way, working for eight hours a day on a square inch, so you multiply that and you get a rough idea of how long it’s going to take to finish that one.

How is this self-portrait different from I Am Joe’s Fear of Disease (2001) or your other paintings where you are the subject?

Joe: Well, the thing with this particular self portrait, it’s more open to whatever. It’s almost like a diary of thoughts, of things that I’m going through right now but who knows what tomorrow may bring, and that will come out in the painting. It’s been at this point very reflective things, which is the way I am right now anyway, just in general. And I have no idea. That’s why it’s open to, you know, whatever happens in my life it will be on the painting. You know, it’s a self-portrait. So it can include any of the subjects that I’m fascinated by. I don’t know where it’s going to lead me. I know where I’ve been with it so far, but I don’t know where it’s going to take me.

Where have you been with it so far?

Joe: Well, let’s see. Things that I’ve dealt with just recently in the painting, it’s funny because, you know, everybody’s talking about this presidential election right now and it always all over the media. So I’ve been thinking about the president that I was most fascinated by was Andrew Jackson. Old Hickory, they called him. He was one of the best and worst presidents of all time. He was a saint and a monster, you know. He was a fascinating character in American history and one of the people mainly responsible for the genocide of the American Indian. And people talk about, you know, the Germans, the Nazis, the atrocities that they committed and the Final Solution. But no one talks about in this country, (that) we, to a more successful degree, wiped out the real Americans, the original Americans. And Andrew Jackson was one of the people most responsible for that with his Indian Removal Act, which forced the Indians to be pushed off of their land, which was out of what was going to be white territory. Just keep pushing them and pushing them.

Whitney Ward: He needed to be beat down with his old hickory stick!

Joe: Beat down with his hickory stick! And it was the walk of tears, and also he, in the most devious way, certainly it was devious, but he made it as if it was the best thing for the Native Americans. I mean, still the policies that he started, even today, hold power.

Whitney: What did you love about him?

Joe: Because he’s a character. He’s fascinating.

Whitney: I like that he was always beating people with his stick.

Joe: Well, he was a character, too. He fought duels with people. He would do the traditional ten paces. He had bullets in his arm. He had three bullets in his body from various duels that he’d fought, and he was still alive! He fought for things that were positive, as well. He broke the Bank of America that had a monopoly (over) the whole banking system in the US at the time. He fought to destroy that and it created some financial problems in the country for awhile but, you know, he tried to break this control that wealthy people were trying to have over the whole banking system of the country. So, I mean, he did good things as well as bad things. And he could convince himself - I mean, like Hitler, also he got his own country out of its depression.


“People get the wrong idea that somehow like I’m evil because (of what I paint) and I’m absolutely not. I’m trying to make friends with the worst and the most unacceptable part of myself and of being a human being, because that’s all of us.”


How do you choose the subjects of your paintings?

Joe: It’s more intuitive. I don’t - you know, this is a self-portrait so I may study in this self-portrait somebody that I’m fascinated by. That’s what I’m doing right now.

So in that way, this painting’s like a broader portrait of myself and it also has Jim Thomson in there, the pulp writer who did “The Killer Inside Me” and “Savage Night” and he was an influence on me. And I have a portrait of him and I’m writing about him and I put it with the crime comics of the 1940s and 1950s that inspired me. Because I think that both the pulp writers and old crime comics, you know, have a certain flavor that represents America to me in a way I see it and B-movie character actors that are in crime movies and so that’s creating a certain part of the painting, as well. So it’s these influences on my work are coming out in this self-portrait.

So you’re studying one thing while you’re painting another.

Joe: Well, yeah, but I don’t know what’s going to fascinate me next. I don’t know what’s going to happen on this painting. Here I am doing this, like Andrew Jackson could be a whole painting in itself, but it’s just become just a little part of this bigger picture. And so could Jim Thomson or you know, the crime comics of the 1950s. That could be a whole painting of itself, too. But it’s just the way it’s coming out here. And maybe it’s given a chance for me to give credit to come of my interests that maybe don’t warrant, you know, a whole painting. But are still significant, you know, to my subconscious and sometimes I don’t even realize how much something’s influenced me and then I realize it, it comes out.

Whitney: And there are some repeat performances (in the paintings). It’s nice to tie it all in, you know, the six degrees of… It’s really funny how they talk to each other. And even sometimes it seems like the expressions change, too. But depending on which paintings are put next to each other, they seem to eerily change.

I agree with you. One of the reasons I wanted to come here was to see how the room communicated within itself. I love the story about the Hank Williams painting and how when you redid it, it was smirking at you. (Frustrated with his progress on the painting, Joe punched a whole in the canvas while working on a portrait of Hank Williams. When he repainted it, he found the subject seemed to be smirking at him).

Whitney: After you sanded his face off?

Joe: After I punched it and knocked it off the easel!

Are there other pieces that you find are communicating?

Joe: There’s one that I sawed in half! But then it worked so now it’s two different paintings! But it was sawed in half. It’s Avenue A Street Scene and The Loyal Daughter because it was like a human-scape at first and then I realized that the image of the soldier with his daughter, he is horribly disfigured and the only person that loved him was this little girl that’s holding his hand. And I just said, I think I just want that image because for me it had the quality of like the icons that I liked, you know, some Christian icon. And that was for our time and our country so I wanted to just have that as an image so I sawed that away from the rest of the human-scape. I can show it to you. I think The Book of Joe shows it. Shows the two next to each other.

Whitney: That’s a lot to take in there … I like choosing random pages, I like letting fate, like choosing a card, decide where you’re going to start. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of your books from start to finish. I always start wherever I just open it to. It’s really hard for it to be a linear, like a narrative for me.

Joe: Well there is no linear narrative in any of the paintings. That’s the way that they’re painted is that, you know, it’s not like left to right. Your eye and whatever is inside of you that makes your eye go to a specific area or cower away from a certain area whatever it is. Everyone’s different, they’ll look at the painting from a distance, and then sometimes when certain people get close to it they’ll say, “ok, I just don’t want to deal with this.”

Whitney: Today. Sometimes they go, “I don’t want to deal with it today.”

Joe: Yeah, and sometimes it’s not even the subject matter, it’s just too much information for certain people to even deal with.

But when you do look at it, the more you look the more you find. Everyone’s different. And each one is going to read the narrative in a different way so in that way it’s not like a movie and it’s not like a book because with a movie, you’re forced to watch the opening scene and the next scene. And then with a book you have like page one and page two. So the way that Whitney was describing just opening it anywhere is the same way that a person could use the painting because you just start to read maybe just a little bit of text from the painting wherever you see it then you’re drawn into it and the more that you look the more that you discover. And then sometimes you go back to it and you might read the same thing, but you read it differently.

Whitney: And it’s like that when you’re painting. Because as you’re painting, the whole dynamic of the entire piece changes and it’s incredible. It’s like I may have read something like five hundred times, and studied it, and it looks completely different once anything else goes on. It’s like from day to day it’s different.

Joe: Well, my spelling is always bad. But I think for the most part I like to have it misspelled unless it’s like, if it changes the intent but sometimes the misspelling says more about a different meaning that I associate with the word. And maybe that I’ve always thought of the word in a different way. And it just looks different. Because the words are not always just about, I mean they’re also about what they look like.

You work in sections when you paint, right?

Joe: Yes, in like a square inch, then you add another one. Or I might also then start somewhere else and then wait until they grow together. Exactly like a jigsaw puzzle.

Because your work is so dense, and contains so much information, how is it in a gallery setting? Especially for someone who doesn’t have the books, or doesn’t have the opportunity to have sat down and looked at it so closely?

Joe: It means, like anything else, the more time somebody spends at the gallery, the more they get out of it.

Like, there’s people that go to an exhibition of my work and they spend many hours just with one painting, then they go back. People have told me that, and that means a lot to me because that’s someone who’s really looking and really getting more out of the experience. Because you can get as much as you want. I mean, you could look at it for, I don’t know, two minutes or something and then leave but you’re not getting as much out of it as someone who spends hours.

Whitney: Sometimes I like going, taking in the whole experience and then going back and go ok, I’m at ease now. I don’t think I ever get enough of each exhibition. But the greatest thing is when we went over for the opening and closing of each exhibition and we had to be kicked out of Palais de Tokyo because so many people had come back at the last minute for the last look.

Joe: The funny thing at the Palais de Tokyo that I remember it was interesting because it was, I had my own room but there was other works in other rooms, so, at the Tilton Gallery that you went to it was all my work so you had the experience of people just standing in front of paintings. That’s what you see often at one of my exhibitions, people in front of a painting waiting for their turn. So at the Palais de Tokyo it’s funny because you see them go from room to room, very typical gallery or museum show, you see them walking and walking. Then you see when you get to my room all of a sudden they stop, and then it’s like this big line!

Whitney: The curator said it was the first time people were actually looking at the art.

With your exhibitions, is it pretty obvious to decide which works of art you choose to display?

Joe: I kind of, I mean there’s certain ones that I want to display but I’m also interested in what the curator wants to display because sometimes I learn something my own work by other people’s reactions to it and the things that they are moved by that something that I miss.

I put very personal things that I’m dealing with into the painting, but the painting has its own life that’s beyond me. It’s like a kid. You raise this child. You might have a certain intent that you want but the child is still going to be its own being, and the paintings are their own being. Whatever you see, or the curator, or whoever is looking at the painting is just as valid as anything that I put into it.

Whitney: And it’s the space, too. You really have had so many great collaborations. Palais de Tokyo was amazing. It seemed like a really stark space to me, it seemed like it was going to potentially be cold but that felt great, and the choices were great. But KW was such a funky, amazing space and you transformed those spaces. But the curator had very, very strong intentions. Joe, you can tell her the story, but Joe said, ‘I’d like very much to have a young, ambitious curator.’

Joe: Oh, that part! But that’s something you and I had talked about before we even met Susanne (Pfeffer, curator of KW Institute of Contemporary Art in Berlin) said we conjured her up. I just said the thing that I want, the only thing I know is appropriate is I need a young, ambitious curator who wants to take chances. There was more to it than that but eventually this person just showed up at the door. I didn’t even understand her name at first! She was exactly what I had predicted. It kind of goes along with me belief that it’s already happened, and it’s just kind of playing out. But it doesn’t take away from the excitement, the wonder of life.

Whitney: It adds to the magical back-up story. Because it was her first exhibition at KW and she was originally just going to do one show but then she saw the Tilton show. Then she became obsessed and demanded for her very first curatorial, she had just been hired. They’d only ever had one solo artist exhibition.

Joe: No, they’d had two but you’re talking about like twenty years ago when someone had the whole building.

Whitney: All I’m going to say is that Henry Darger had one floor.

Joe: And Fasbender had one floor!

Whitney: So, moving forward, she pushed and succeeded in having the entire exhibition space and it got extended twice. She made decisions that were very specific and she found works that would not be obvious choices. Every other curator says, ‘What can we get? How much do we need for insurance? Where’s it coming from?’

Joe: And she would reject things, that, Whitney got pissed -

Whitney: I didn’t get pissed, I was hurt. (laughs)

Joe: Because she didn’t want the ‘Love Song’ painting (the 1999 piece depicting Joe and Whitney’s courtship). I think it was sweet that you had that reaction! But it goes to show that she was very specific and as demanding as I am with my work. As a curator, she wouldn’t bend on things. She had a very specific idea about a certain way that she wanted my work to be presented there. She was not backing down! She would dig her heels in. But there’s other things that she was open with, and she was right! When she’d dig her heels in she was right. We worked well together.

Whitney: We spent days repainting walls, because I guess the night before the press opening we wanted to change the wall color. And this is a margarine factory, the walls are vast! Everybody that could was there doing it.

Joe: That shows the other end of it, how open she was cause she knew, like she and I both knew something was wrong with the walls. And it had to be changed, but the whole museum was not backing her up on it. So she paid out of her own pocket for the cost of the paint to make sure it was done right.

What were some of the more obscure pieces that she chose?

Joe: She fought really hard for this, it’s not typical in the sense that it’s a watercolor. It’s a piece that I did called ‘Man Made Miracle‘ (1992) which, I like it a lot, it’s the best watercolor that I’ve done.

It’s a true story about this horribly deformed little girl who they did this experimental flap surgery with where they grew certain, like they made a nose for her on her arm then attached it to her face and tried to make a more acceptable face. But the face that they made was pretty disturbing as well! It was just fascinating to me and it was just a watercolor, a little watercolor. Susanne was obsessed with getting that piece, and it was not a major piece, but it was really important to her. She had it in one room all by itself and it turned out, I didn’t know where it was, I had a vague idea of who would know where it was. And it turned out it was right in Berlin! The guy rode it on his bike to the museum!

Whitney: Welcome to Joe’s world!


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

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

Thirsty : March 2007 : Joe Coleman : Palais de Tokyo - Paris, France

Thirsty : September 2006 : Joe Coleman interview



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