With a mastery, precision and purpose that are regrettably rare in contemporary art, Joe Coleman has been plumbing the darkest depths of the human psyche and condition for more than 30 years. Everything grotesque, horrific, psychotic, pathogenic and reprehensible -- in short all that physically revolts, morally appalls and emotionally disturbs us, that thrusts the body politic into extreme discomfort and collective denial -- is the milieu in which Coleman finds grace and meaning.
Outside the petty disputes of the culture wars and within the context of art, we should certainly be used to outrages of this sort, incapable we would presume of being shocked. What makes this artist so spectacular in his epic vision of atrocity, however, is how profoundly personal it is. What qualifies him in that dubious rarified realm we reserve for the likes of de Sade or Genet is that Joe Coleman truly means it -- he lives and feels this terrifying travesty of being with every waking nightmarish moment and conveys it with a conviction and intensity that is inescapable.
The consummate outsider, Coleman makes art that has always been ill-fit and outré no matter its medium of venue. His performance-based work, which included such tropes as covering his body with explosives and setting them off, biting the heads off of live rats and throwing their bodies at the audience, and punctuating his rants with a loaded gun, was too radical for the avant-garde, as his comics were too nasty for the underground, his band too rude for Punk and his paintings too grizzly for the down and dirty East Village art scene where he first began showing them and just too damn crazy for the outsider art world where he subsequently found a temporary home.
Forever the outcast to the art world proper, Joe Coleman has had to make his own way, and as a study in the manufacture and marketing of persona (such as performing a human autopsy in one documentary about him), he makes the showmanship, mythomania and cynical calculations of PT Barnum seem modest and naïve in comparison.
That Coleman now is the province of the more established uptown galleries -- i.e., his current show at Dickinson off Madison Avenue -- and held in high esteem in Europe (where there is always a great taste for American transgression), and that he commands prices as a contemporary artist one would only expect of far more widely recognizable art world figures, is as much a testament to his amazing representational skills (he paints with a single hair paint brush to such excruciatingly exact detail that you really want to bring along a magnifying glass to see this show properly) as it is to the commitment and passion he has brought to his journey along that proverbial left hand path.
Joe Coleman has always been a most autobiographical artist, populating his work with a hermetic iconography of his blackest demonology and figuring his appropriately countercultural friends and lovers prominently. He has cultivated his life as he has his art, with his apartment and studio in Brooklyn nothing less than a now legendary odditorium of forbidden treasures that would rival any freak show. Even his other frequent choice of subject matter, a veritable pantheon of universally reviled mass murderers from the most gruesomely esoteric to the familiarly populist (like Manson and Osama Bin Laden) has been deeply empathetic as a point of identification and qualified by his own assertion that if he were not painting he would be killing people.
What distinguishes this new show of Coleman’s art, his first in New York since his exhibition at Jack Tilton Gallery four years ago, is the unveiling of an epic life-size portrait dense with a miniature menagerie of incidents and characters from his life. A tour-de-force of unfathomable concentration and virtuosity that took him over three years to complete, it is as extremely problematic as it is unquestionably great.
Coleman has never flinched in his own self-examination, making an almost self-loathing confessional of his intrepid search into his own heart of darkness as he brutally uncovers the old wounds of his abused childhood, imagines the grown child of the baby he never had when his former wife had an abortion, or memorably created a self portrait out of his hair, blood, scabs, semen and sundry other bodily excretions -- creepily notable for having been stolen.
But part of what has made Joe’s art so compelling and entertaining, what has certainly given it a wonderfully doubtable edge, is that he has always presented the very worst with a carnie’s spiel. It is one thing for a sleazy maestro of midway come-ons to bait suckers with exaggerate taboo allures, but when the culprit begins offering himself as the freak, it at once more painful and prosaic.
In no way does this impugn the utter soul-baring honesty of this artist, personally we cannot think of any who is more sincere than he. But as this artist has begun to dig ever more deeply into the monstrous psychological dimensions of his self and life, his truth is tainted by the irresolvable matter of his elaborate self-invention and a narcissism that is easier to take in artists than in art itself.
It is almost as if Wilde’s Dorian Gray (and here we are reminded that Ivan Albright who created the series of progressively more grotesque portraits for the movie offers the most evident precedent for Coleman’s style) would in that moment when he fully beheld the malformed and gnarled evil beast he had become had an epiphany of self-love rather than one of personal abnegation.
As this artist continues to unsettle us, his journey into himself might just be the most disturbing aspect of his work yet.
Joe Coleman, "Auto-Portrait," Oct. 28-Dec. 22, 2010, at Dickinson New York, 19 East 66th Street, New York, N.Y. 10065
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor at Paper Magazine.