Joe Coleman Gets a Retrospective at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
IF P. T. Barnum had hired Breughel or Bosch to paint sideshow banners, they might have resembled the art of Joe Coleman. Obsessively depicting a grim moral universe of transgression and retribution, Mr. Coleman paints grotesque images of murderers and victims, freaks and monsters, disease, depravity and perversities of every kind.
In his painstakingly detailed paintings, Charles Manson leers, JonBenet Ramsey pouts, pinheads dance, drunkards lie with poxied whores, and corpses display their wounds like obscene stigmata. Drug addicts loll in ruined cityscapes under boiling H-bomb skies, 1930’s gangsters grin on their way to the gallows, and Mr. Coleman and his wife, Whitney Ward, reign over the apocalypse, enthroned on the head of a giant Satan. In a startlingly prophetic vision of his from 2000, the twin towers burn.
A retrospective of Mr. Coleman’s art over the last 16 years will open at the Tilton Gallery in Manhattan on Thursday. With 33 paintings and installations, it will be the largest exhibition of his work ever held in New York, the city where he has lived for 30 years, yet where he has always operated outside the fine-art mainstream.
Simultaneously a miniaturist and a maximalist, Mr. Coleman wears jeweler’s magnifying lenses and uses single-hair brushes to cover every micron of his surfaces, including the frames, with minute pictorial detail and tiny text. He paints “one square inch at a time,” he said, never sketching or plotting out the completed work in advance.
“The composition reveals itself to me,” he explained in an interview. A large work, roughly three by two feet, painted in acrylic on wood, can take up to a year to complete.
Mr. Coleman says his obsession with religion and death goes back to his childhood. Growing up in Norwalk, Conn., he recalled, he played in the cemetery across the street, lived in fear of his alcoholic father and went to church with his mother, an excommunicated Roman Catholic. Placed in a school for disturbed children, he doodled bloody martyrs and once “confessed” to a priest that he had committed several murders.
After moving to New York in the mid-1970’s, he studied briefly and unhappily at the School of Visual Arts, before being expelled, he said, for making art that his teachers called “fascist” and “schizophrenic.” Meanwhile he drew underground comics, began to exhibit in small East Village galleries and appeared in independent films like David Wojnarowicz’s “Where Evil Dwells,” in which he was typecast as Satan.
Through the 1980’s Mr. Coleman acted out his shocking and violent cosmology in infamous performances at performing arts spaces and galleries. He revived the sideshow geek act of biting the heads off live mice, outraging animal rights advocates. He set fires onstage, once threatened an arty crowd with a loaded shotgun, and often concluded his act by igniting a chest-pack of dynamite, an explosive stunt for which he was arrested in Boston in 1989 on charges of operating an “infernal machine.” He framed the arrest warrant.
Now 50, his Mephistophelean beard streaked with gray, Mr. Coleman mostly confines his provocations to his paintings and expresses his sideshow interests through the Odditorium, his name for the small Brooklyn Heights apartment he and Ms. Ward share with a dime museum’s worth of curiosities.
Wax effigies of O. J. Simpson, Lenin and the serial killer Richard Speck stand near photographs of Mr. Coleman and Ms. Ward’s 2000 wedding, a sideshow affair in itself, held at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. (Mr. Coleman, dressed like a carny pitchman, came to the altar in a coffin, while dwarfs carried Ms. Ward’s train.) A lock of Charles Manson’s hair lies near a reliquary that supposedly holds a bit of Jesus’ bone marrow. John Dillinger’s death mask, a bullet from Jack Ruby’s pistol and other outré bric-a-brac crowd the living room, leaving only enough space for an antique settee as furniture.
For most of Mr. Coleman’s career his macabre visions and unironically primitive style earned him a cult following even as they positioned him far outside the mainstream.
Though his work hasn’t changed much, curators and gallerists have expanded their purviews. After Damien Hirst’s dissections, Henry Darger’s drawings and shows of graffiti taggers, it’s not such a surprise that Mr. Coleman has become more of an insider recently. His paintings now sell for $100,000 and up. He has had solo exhibitions at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and the Corcoran Gallery in Los Angeles, and has put on an extravagant multimedia presentation at the Barbican Theater in London. Even the School of Visual Arts invited him back as a student adviser.
Now he goes uptown for his first solo gallery exhibition in New York City since 1992. “I always knew,” he said. “I take the work very seriously. I knew where it belonged.”
The Tilton Gallery’s owner, Jack Tilton, said he was introduced to Mr. Coleman’s work “eight or nine years ago” by a collector, Mickey Cartin, who helped organize the exhibition.
“I’m into eclecticism and individuality,” Mr. Tilton said in an interview. “Most of what we show has an edge. It’s got to move my gut.” He argued that it was appropriate for an eccentric like Mr. Coleman to be showing on the Upper East Side, rather than in the Chelsea art zone, with what he called its “mall” atmosphere.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Cartin, a well-known collector of outsider and contemporary art, said: “I’ve been encouraging Joe to do this for some time. Joe’s the real thing, truly one of a kind. I just thought it was sad that nobody knows about him in the New York art world.”
The paintings in the show date from 1990 to a new portrait of Johnny Eck, the “half man” who appeared in Todd Browning’s film “Freaks.” Another recent portrait is of Mr. Coleman’s friend Larry Desmedt, a Coney Island legend known as Indian Larry who died in a motorcycle accident in 2004. Installations will include selections from the Odditorium and a large construction from 2003, “As You Look Into the Eye of the Cyclops, So the Eye of the Cyclops Looks Into You.” It represents a giant, old-fashioned television console, 66 inches high by 38 inches wide, a homage to the electronic monolith he says he worshiped from the floor as a child.
On Friday at 9 p.m. the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village will screen some of the films in which Mr. Coleman has appeared, and on Saturday he will give a talk at the Tilton Gallery at 3 p.m. Warning: He may explode for old time’s sake.