"I'm not attempting to try to change the world, I'm just trying to exorcise its pains"

By: Sarah L. Myers

There's a smoothness to Joe Coleman's voice that one might not expect. His paintings are both engrossing and gross, welcoming and threatening. Just as his work is so personal to him, the viewer becomes just as protective of it- as if its a world to which only they hold an invitation. Speaking to Coleman over the phone from his home in Brooklyn, I feel like I've always known him. His personality sits at the center of the frame, much like the subjects he chooses for his work. Opening September 4, 2006 is the largest exhibit of Coleman's collection to date- two floors and three rooms in Manhattan's Jack Tilton gallery.

The first thing that I wanted to ask you about is a few months ago your portrait of Indian Larry was featured on the cover of Juxtapoz, and I was so touched by that portrait because it reminded me so much of what we're doing with the magazine. You had mentioned that Larry wanted you to be involved with the motorcycle culture, and you finally got to do a project with him, even though he wasn't there to see it. It just reminded me very much of what we are doing.

But I felt like he was with me, you know, throughout the whole process of doing the painting. I could always feel his spirit and I had, like his jacket I had here and a bunch of his tools. And I always felt his presence, I could feel him throughout the process.


The first time I saw your work, and saw the film (R.I.P- Rest in Pieces) I was really struck by how densely interactive your artwork was, and I couldn't tell if I was looking at a piece of art or if I was reading a story.

Right. Yeah, it's a kind of narrative that's, unlike the experience of reading a book or watching a movie, the paintings are dense with information but it's up to you to seek it out. The more that you look at one of the paintings the more of the painting that gets revealed to you, and the story manifests itself and, like in a movie or like in a book, in a movie there's the first scene or in a book there's a first page, but you don't have that with my paintings. So each person takes a different journey and every time you look at it it's going to be different. The more that you look at it, the more you find.

(Is the exhibit) mostly going to be the biographical paintings that you've done?

It's a collection of several of the different types of paintings. There's also a section of human scapes, they'll be a section of self-portraits, and historical figures, and artists and musicians and friends, so you get a pretty full picture of my work. It'll be great for me to see them again cause I haven't seen them in so long. And they do have a continuous narrative flow, too, so it'll be nice seeing them with each other, cause they speak to each other, and certain people reoccur. Like Larry had been in some other paintings, too, before he was featured, before he had his own painting. Yeah, depending on how, depending on which one I choose to put near the next, it will change the feeling of the room and the way you read the paintings.

What items from the Odditorium are you planning on putting in the exhibit?

I haven't decided entirely yet. So I'm still kind of debating that, but it will be just a fraction, just to give some idea of what's it's like. I think what I'll probably choose is at least some things that relate to the paintings. Like in particular, since there is a painting of Dillinger I'll probably have Dillinger's death mask, and since there's a painting of Hasil (Atkins), Hasil was another friend that died recently, I've got this little relic that has some of his hair and some of his grave dirt, photos of when I brought his coffin down to the cemetery hole in West Virginia. And then there's the letters, some serial killers probably. I don't know, I haven't decided entirely yet. If it's related to a particular painting that's on exhibit, then I would want to pick those pieces in particular and maybe some other pieces, too.


With your paintings, you really do capture the fact that life is so much about the smaller moments. It's not just about the big things. You include the words that people used while they were alive and the quotes that inspired them. In a way it's almost like you're looking inside that person's head and the thoughts and memories that other people have of them.

Yeah, and it's kind of like a bit of magic, too, resurrecting the spirit or housing the spirit, I guess, too. And kind of like when the Egyptians would bury someone with things that gave them comfort, even like servants they were buried with, and their pets and things like that, and objects that were important to them. And then it's also the fact that I'll use objects as well with the narrative, which adds a magical element to it that helps bring the spirit out of the subject.


Are you planning on doing something similar to the television set? (2003's As You Look into the Eye of the Cyclops, So the Eye of the Cyclops Looks into You).

I don't know. I can't really say what the future holds but that was a very specific... you'll get to see that TV set painting cause it's something you have to experience (laughs). It's also rigged to have smoke come out of its ears but I don't know if Jack Tilton will let me get away with putting the smoke machine inside. It'll be great to see that there. But I never know what the future holds for me. I don't have any plans of doing a piece, I don't like to repeat myself. Unless there's something missing that I needed to say, that I hadn't said with that.

How do you actually know when a painting is done?

When I've covered the entire surface and then I work on the frame and then when... I guess it's intuitive, you know? But who knows, maybe the next thing I'll start, like, painting the wall next to the wood.

Touching on your knowledge of, and interest in, disease (Joe's mother died of lymphoma and he has suffered attacks of anaphylactic shock), does it feel like the disease is the thing doing the creating?

Yeah, I often feel like that. It kind of, it releases it, too. Some of it is... maybe there's a part of disease that's a pain that's not expressed, something that needs to be exorcised. Maybe, like when I was painting I Am Joe's Fear of Disease I never had any attacks, but I had attacks before and after the painting. So in some ways the painting allowed an exit for what's, for something that's buried inside.... You need to be able to talk about it, or paint it, or to write about it. That's the part of art, it's been a guide for me, it's been a help, in many different ways. There's a lot of things in my work that people don't want to hear about, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be expressed. It needs to be expressed. And the work that I'm doing, it's not like the social realist, like I'm not attempting to try to change the world, I'm just trying to exorcise its pains. To be able to express it, that's the main thing. Not to change the world, that would seem like a conceit that I don't really believe in. The world is a pretty disturbing place and seems so chaotic that if I can put it in sharp focus and put my symbols around it and define it, and put these borders around it, and intricate frames around it, it kind of controls my fears. And it helps me live with it.


You only paint things that get under your skin and bother you, and your paintings themselves are like big puzzles. You even only work on one piece of them at a time. So by the time it's completely finished, does the subject make sense to you? And you've made some kind of peace with it?

Yeah. There's no final resolution but there's some relief from fears and but there's never any final resolution. I think the only final resolution would be in the end of my life because if there was some kind of final resolution I wouldn't have the need to go and do the next painting. But really when I stop one I literally start the next, so it's a continuous process, that's why the narrative elements is continuous. I guess it's almost like pages in an illuminated manuscript like each painting is almost like another page.

You collect a lot of medical specimens and sideshow material. In Rest in Pieces you are filmed performing an autopsy. How do you get clearance to do that?

Certain things like doing the autopsy in Budapest the medical examiner is a big fan of my work and he had the power to do that so he sanctions it. Through people that, I've been fortunate in my life, who help me, that are in areas of authority over these things that I have interest over, too.

Is there still a waiting list for your work?

I know that there are going to be some paintings for sale at the show, which are Jack Tilton's, that he got... I don't take commissions, per se, because commissions imply the subject, and I don't even know who the subject is until I start.

There are some obvious ones that people always ask you about, like Elvis.

(laughing) Yeah, people ask me if I was going to paint Elvis. I don't know. Certainly if it's that obvious, I probably won't do it. I can really only talk about what I am doing, or what I have done. Like right now I'm painting Johnny Eck. (He) was the Half Man in the movie "Freaks." He was born with only half of a man, and he walked around on his hands. And I've always been fascinated by him. I have one of his performing outfits here at the Odditorium. He lived in this one row house on Milton Avenue in Baltimore. The house still exists there and he was also known locally in Baltimore as being one of, this tradition of folk art called screen painters, he painted screens. You can still see them in some of the windows in the neighborhood that he lived in. And he lived this amazing life. He was also- he drove a mini race car around, that's how he got around town. He did one of the most amazing magic acts that I've ever heard of. He had a twin brother named Robert and they did this act, with this magician named Ray Boyd, where Ray Boyd would do the traditional sawing-a-man-in-half-routine. But Rob would be a plant in the audience, Johnny's brother, and Rob would come out, be picked from the audience and come out and when Ray Boyd would saw Rob in half, Johnny would be on one half and this dwarf Frankie would be the legs. So the legs would start running away and Johnny would chase his legs screaming, "Come back!" and chase his legs into the audience, and it was one of the most shocking acts. People were screaming, and ran out of the theater.


You've said that a Joe Coleman painting can really be seen anywhere. It's not really a matter of material, per se, but the way you look at the world. Because I'm so familiar with your work now, when I watch the news or reality television, I think in terms of a Joe Coleman painting.

You live in Chicago, and (you're) walking down the street. And sometimes people tell me, it looks like a Joe Coleman day or something.... I had Jon Benet Ramsey being carried to heaven by the Little Rascals in the TV set (in As You Look into the Eye of the Cyclops). But it starts at the bottom, you'd have to spend time really examining the painting but it's the World Trade Center, there's planes coming out of the eyes that are in the World Trade Center cause that's what I had a dream about. The bodies that are coming out of the building are turning into these cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker and stuff. And then those characters circle upwards towards the top of the painting- it's all the TV set painting. These are all images that are coming out of the TV set. Whether it's the World Trade Center or the cartoon characters. And then the cartoon characters turn into pornography and then the Little Rascals are carrying Jon Benet Ramsey up into heaven, and Bush is above Osama Bin Laden, who is above Manson. They are all just coming out of the television set, which is a God. We all worship in front of this God. To me I just had to make an altar to this God, television. And I just put "With love, fear, and respect to a powerful God."

It's a way you look at the world. It's a way you look at television.

And the way television looks at me.

What inspires you every day?

I do play music all the time when I'm painting. So that helps inspire me. I play everything- the obvious ones you might think of rockabilly and country and western. But I also play some classical music, and one of my favorite composers that I painted, Carlo Gesualdo, and then I'll also play like Weeping Patties- old Irish folk songs. I guess the stuff that I don't listen to as much, and stuff that I'm not as aware of is contemporary music. There's very little contemporary music that I do play. I'm not making a judgment, I just don't.


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


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