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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.

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.

Here's Part Two of our exclusive conversation.


Thirsty: How do the majority of people come to acquire your work? Is it all through galleries, do you do commissions, or are there waiting lists?

Joe Coleman: It’s maybe inaccurate… there’s people that would be on a waiting list to get pieces but they’re not commissions in the sense that they’re asking for a certain one. Because I just do what I want to do and it’s not as if… it’s kind of confusing when you say commission because then it’s like, ’paint my family!’ But things have changed. I’m producing less work, because I’m trying to concentrate on doing more and more ambitious work. I hate that end of it. I have people that back me to do what I want to do. The other end of it, you should talk to Whitney about! Because I try to stay out of it! But I never did, it’s a misconception to think of a commission. It’s true that there are people waiting to get the works but it’s not when they have a chance (they’ll get it).

I guess I was thinking if someone knew you were working on a specific piece, do they put their name in to have that piece when you’re finished?

Joe: No, that never happens. It wouldn’t happen today either. I guess it could happen in the sense that if somebody has the piece and somebody knows that they have that piece and they say, ‘I would like to get that piece’ and the collector that has it could sell it. But it’s not like an auction for that particular piece. I feel like the things that have been specific like that, like this painting, the ‘Love Song’ painting that I was talking about earlier. Mickey Cartin, whose been one of my biggest collectors of anyone, he was next in line to get a painting at that time, and I didn’t know what I was going to painting but it turned out I did this painting of our courtship because that’s when Whitney and I, at that time, that was really important to me. But Mickey was already essentially, had put a deposit on it, essentially I had to buy it back in a sense! Because Whitney said, ‘you can’t sell that! What, are you crazy?’

Whitney Ward: How did I say that?

Joe: Well, how do you remember saying it?

Whitney: Screaming, crying, having a full-on meltdown and going into therapy! That’s how I remember it.

Joe: So he didn’t get that one.

Whitney: But he was happier. He just felt like, ‘whatever I’m going to get, that’s going to be the right painting. You guys should really keep that.’ Also, he has a painting at home with Diane, who was Joe’s former girlfriend who I adore, but I think it might have been awkward for him, he had talked about this before, we’re holding hands in this and you’re a point in your relationship where you’re sitting on the same sofa and your hands are not connected. To have two relationship paintings, I think that it was just difficult for you because you were thinking about the list and you wouldn’t have conceived of keeping a painting.

Joe: To me they’re all precious. May seem weird to say that but to me this is precious and the others are precious and this is what I was going through in my life and that’s what I paint. Then I realize that there’s somebody else here in my life. Because to me these children should get off into the world. Whitney bought into my way of looking at it and I’m glad she did, to keep some of these. That’s why we are keeping some. I used to never keep anything.

And that’s so hard for me to understand because I just feel like it would be so difficult to give them away.

Joe: That’s the thing that people ask me all the time and I have absolutely… in fact it was harder for Whitney to convince me to keep them. Because to me, I spent all of this time giving birth to these beautiful monsters and then I want to push them out of the nest. Like go out! Be, have your own life! I’ve already taken care of you, and nurtured you. Now, go! Be!

Whitney: So we reconcile that the best way ever. We have an event, a ritual that we call the Baby Shower, but it’s the nest possible way for me to deal with separation anxiety. To just send it off, then it’s a celebration. I mean, it sounds kind of gay. We have a party for it! It’s like a big baby shower.

Joe: Baby shower, like in the way Whitney’s describing, we throw like a party and people look at the piece and hang out and talk about it.

Whitney; but it’s with family and friends and people that we really love because often there’s no fanfare. I think my objection was it goes wrapped in my sheets. I mean, I’m giving this to a collector in my pink, silk and satin sheets? It just needed to have this coming out party. In some ways it makes it easier for me. You’ve worked on these things for like a year! You need to have a blowout, and have a wall of love and then I’m fine.

Joe: But the TV set, (“As You Look into the Eye of the Cyclops, So the Eye of the Cyclops Looks into You” 2003) we haven’t given it. These three Whitney made sure that we keep. So the TV set, Mary Bell (And a Child Shall Lead Them (Mary Bell) 2000), and the Love Song. If it was up to me, we wouldn’t have any of them. (laughs)

I can understand relinquishing the work as the final step in the creative process. At the same time, because your work is so personal, it’s almost as if someone is reading your diary, or even the thoughts of whomever you’re painting. It’s so personal I don’t know if you’d want other people to be looking at it. But you know the people who own your work, so do you feel there’s a trust there?

Joe: Yeah, and I fought for a long time and that’s why I had problems with signing up with a gallery. What you’re talking about right now, that part is true, that I want them to be owned by someone who I feel is worthy of having them. That part is true. But to have the personal things being looked at, that I’m ok with. You couldn’t have an exhibition to show them, let alone the person that owns them. But it’s a painful process, you know, when you have a bunch of strangers looking at personal stuff. Like sometimes I have to get out of the room. I remember a couple of things where I just couldn’t be in the room, like ‘Survival on the Installment Plan’ I had to get out of the room.

Whitney: I don’t know how you could paint that.

Joe: It was better to paint it than to live with those feelings. But then eventually as time goes on it gets easier and some of the private emotions that are in there are even deeper than you might even know. You know the stuff that you found but there’s stuff in there that’s hidden even deeper that would taken even a lot more to find. You know like a certain amount. Maybe they’ll all be discovered and that’s ok, too. But it is a painful process to have strangers looking inside of you like that … But it makes them bring up their own deep, personal feelings and I get that if I’m doing a talk or a signing or something. It’ll be something that someone’s seen or that I put there, but sometimes that I didn’t put there. But it somehow touches something in another person and I think probably because I’m a human being, too. I’m dealing with things that some human beings don’t want to deal with but we have those things inside ourselves.

Whitney: You’re channeling so much more of the pain that people can’t articulate.

Joe: Some people feel like they can’t talk to anyone. That if they admitted that they had these feelings or that there was stuff like that going on inside of them that they would be, at best, given an upturned nose. At best! Then if they feel like, I mean, like they know… It’s a weird thing, but I don’t judge. I don’t judge anybody … If people feel comfortable that they can say anything to me, I mean there’s nothing that’s too horrible. Humanity, just being human, just to feel different things… I mean, the thoughts that come into my head, different feelings, it’s part of just being human. It doesn’t mean that it’s ok. It’s definitely not ok to do terrible things. 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. The people that can’t see that I feel, I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid of someone who can’t see that. It’s inside of all of us, the worst monster in the world. It’s you. It’s right inside of you.


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

Thirsty : September 2006 : Joe Coleman interview



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