The great exploding artist
Joe Coleman loves dynamite, dark forces, the grotesque, the bizarre. At home in Brooklyn is his collection of freakish oddities. On show in London are some he made himself.
Tuesday 19 May 1998
These days, everyone wants a piece of Coleman. Collectors wait up to 18 months for a new painting - each an insanely detailed journey into the diseased heart of Western culture. Coleman has been referred to as a latter-day Hieronymous Bosch, and it is an influence he doesn't deny. He paints a motley pantheon of luminaries and dark forces, the inbred backwoods cousins of Norman Rockwell and Outsider Art. Mass murderers like Carl Panzram and Ed Gein people his iconography, alongside Harry Houdini, Louis Ferdinand Celine, the Outsider artist (and convicted paedophile) Adolf Wolfli, the Elephant Man, and Jayne Mansfield, his first and only historical portrait of a female subject.
A resolute throwback to turn-of-the-century New York, he wears the red stripe of the Irish street gang, the Dead Rabbits, on his trousers. "One of the only modern inventions that has value to me is dynamite," he says. "Maybe the Irish have some kind of political justification, but in my case, I just like making bombs."
In 1989 he was charged with "being in possession of an infernal machine", a charge not brought for over a century. The machine in question was Coleman himself, loaded with fireworks and detonating himself in front of an audience at the Boston Film and Video Arts Foundation.
Coleman discovered this way to vent his feelings as a teenager. Protecting himself with a baking tray, he strapped fireworks to his chest and concealed them beneath his shirt. He would gatecrash parties and insult the guests before detonating himself and exiting. By the late Eighties, prankster had become performance artist, under the guise of his maniacal alter ego, Professor Momboozoo, a neologism alluding to his "mom" and alcoholic father.
Professor Momboozoo was laid to rest at a 1989 Boston performance which served as a memento mori to his parents, who had died that year - Joseph Snr, a disillusioned Second World War veteran, of massive coronary failure, and his mother, Jacqueline, a devout Catholic who was excommunicated for marrying Joe's father after separating from her first husband, of pancreatic cancer.
First projecting some old porn films, Coleman burst through the screen attached to a harness and blew himself up in mid-air. He bit the heads off two mice, one named "Daddy", the other "Mommy", then spat "Daddy's" head into the audience and swallowed "Mommy's" - thus incorporating her essence, as is supposed to happen with the Communion host she was denied by excommunication. Then, to recreate the fires of hell that she had feared being consumed by, he set fire to the venue.
It was Coleman's father who bought him his first paint-set and encouraged him to draw. While Joseph Snr painted New England landscapes and lighthouses to pay his bar bills, his son was busy detailing the stations of the cross and the victims of stabbings. At the age of 10, his anti-litter painting of a rubbish heap was hung in City Hall and won him a commendation from Lady Bird Johnson, who bought the picture for her children's art collection.
In the early Seventies, he briefly attended art school, but, he says, "Anyone who worked with the human figure was considered an illustrator. All this stuff I was doing was looked down on, so essentially I'm self- taught. There was no place for me in art school."
The late Seventies saw Coleman progress into more complex black-and-white street scenes that would later develop into the full-blown colour "humanscapes" for which he is famous. In 1982, his self-published book, The Mystery of Wolverine Woo-bait, showed the first signs of text invading his work, swirling across the pages and assisting in the adoption of an intensely private symbolism.
"Catholicism gave me these incredible tools of expression," he says.
In Portrait of Professor Momboozoo (1986), his alter ego stands crucified against an backdrop dense with the mutated offspring of Catholicism and astrology.
His biggest subject, however, is himself, revealed in a series of unflinching self-portraits. In Faith, painted in 1996 after the break-up with his girlfriend, the pornographer Dian Hanson, Coleman presents himself protected from the void with a series of magical devices made up of artefacts from his Odditorium collection of curios and artefacts. "I can't climb out of the hole that I'm in, so I might as well dig myself out," he says.
Coleman's paintings depict pain and conflict head-on, but also represent an attempt to resolve it. They are a relentless archaeological excavation of the life of his subjects, each painting the result of meticulous research. Like a method actor, he takes the opportunity to enter his subjects' psyches. "It's like a journey where I don't know where I'm going," he says.
He paints eight hours a day, five days a week. Each work takes up to two months. "It works almost like an organic thing, where it grows," he says. "I finish one inch at a time and then another one grows out of that and it keeps growing until the whole surface is covered. Then I mount it on a fabric related to the subject and paint the frame."
Mommy/Daddy, the portrait of his parents, is mounted on a piece of his father's army uniform that he wore fighting the Japanese at Iwo Jima, along with material from his mother's "sexy black satin dress".
At the gallery, his paintings hang freely, suspended from the ceiling. "Showing the backs of my paintings was something I wouldn't have thought of," he says, "but it shows two sides of my personality."
He is not open to commissions, preferring instead to paint "exactly what I want". They sell for around $20,000. "If I make more money, maybe I can buy John Dillinger's dick," he says.
He already has his Odditorium, a collection of curiosities and freakish relics housed in his Brooklyn apartment. Exhibits include the wax heads of opium addicts, the death mask of Vincent Price, a lock of Charles Manson's hair, Victorian burial caskets, and Spot, a pickled one-eyed pig. His "adopted son", Junior, a preserved foetus, presides over the family belongings from his jar of formaldehyde.
"One of the few places that rival my own collection," he says, "is Scotland Yard's Black Museum" - which he visited before leaving London. "Not only do they have the stove Dennis Nilsen cooked his victims on, but they also have the pot he cooked them in."
And what would become of his own collection when he died? "I'd like to see it preserved like Edgar Allan Poe's house, or Teddy Roosevelt's, and have the red ropes around and to have me stuffed and mounted," he said. And with that, he left to go and eat.
Original Sin, the exhibition of Paintings, Drawings & Prints continues until 30 May at The Chamber of Pop Culture, The Horse Hospital, Colonnade, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1HX (0171-833 3644). Joe Coleman is represented in the UK by Henry Boxer, 0181-948 1633. 'Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman' is published by Heck Editions, available through Turnaround Distribution (0181-829 3000).
A number of limited-edition prints and books can also be found on the Coleman homepage, firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe Coleman is the subject of a documentary by Robert Pejo, `RIP: Rest In Pieces', which is available from Prisma Filmproduktion GmBH, Neubaugasse 8/1, 1070 Vienna, Austria. Tel+0043 1 522 8325.
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