Welcome to the dark and happy world of Joe Coleman
Would you feel intimidated, or even slightly preoccupied, at the thought of going to meet JOE COLEMAN in the privacy of his home - an abode often compared to a house of horrors and sometimes described as a realm of sideshow dementia - to ask him questions about his work and about himself?
I had often heard of his antics and his eccentric reputation, but knew less of his work.
Standing at the doorstep of the Upper East Side address at which we had agreed to meet proved to be a truly exciting moment - our curiosity was hitting its peak, and the prospect of an intimate encounter with this personage of the art world, who has such a rich past in New York’s underground, had us shuffling our feet in anticipation.
The seductive woman who welcomed us into the apartment was dressed in black, with smoky eye make-up and red lips paired with a husky voice. The apartment was, as anticipated, tenebrously-lit, and decorated in a mischievous Victorian style. Coleman introduced himself and we were swiftly invited into the parlour and the kitchen area, its ceiling entirely covered with fishing nets in which were caught exotic poisonous fish and other tropical creatures. As well as a couple of shrunken heads, tiny stuffed animals, a few hideous trolls and some odd plastic dolls.
Whitney Ward: Have we met before? – asked the woman in black
Delphine Dalquié: I don’t think so, no.
WW: That’s freaky, you guys – she said
DD: What, we’re freaky?
WW: You seem familiar, as if I’ve met you before, that is freaky!
Really? Well it seems that unusual things really do happen here.
A brief chat about David Koresh trivia and a relaxing glass of white wine later, Joe Coleman was comfortably seated in an armchair and his wife Whitney, a photographer by trade, had set up a lighting arrangement that lent him a whiff of a Mephistophelian aura.
The camera was ready and our interview could begin.
Coleman has often been associated to the alternative culture best represented by Robert Williams’s Juxtapoz magazine - a mish-mash of rockabilly & Hot Rod culture, underground comic books, fringe illustrators and tattoo artists - but perhaps this is for lack of a better reference.
Simultaneously a comic book author, a punk and country musician, a preacher, a performer and a painter, Joe Coleman doesn’t seem to be poised to belong to a specific movement, but rather to document his era, which fascinates and inspires him.
His works reference personalities such as Harry Houdini, Boxcar Bertha or Jayne Mansfield - celebrities, politicians, musicians and outlaws who are all part of the American Dream. His most infamous subjects are also the most subversive: from the Casanova Killer to Charles Manson, Ed Gein, juvenile serial killers and even Bronson, “the most violent prisoner in Britain”, with whom Coleman maintains a written correspondence.
But his art, although controversial, is in reality far from the somewhat gratuitous provocation of the more recent American pop counterculture to which it has been clumsily assimilated.
His painstakingly meticulous paintings, rendered in palpably beaming colours, evoke at once Flemish masters, iconography, illuminated manuscripts and Hindu art. Technically, these works are accomplished with a single-hair paintbrush that demands the assistance of a jeweller’s loupe, a strong dose of perseverance, and exceptional skills.
Above all, the artist’s creations are the fruit of complete sincerity. Brought up in the catholic faith, Coleman is a believer and this influence is very present in his paintings. He offers a vision of the world, at once terrifying and marvellous, in which he lives.
It was during the 80s that Coleman orchestrated his first performances, called Party Explosions, and invented the character of Professor Momboozo. The Professor was rather adept at crashing very refined formal events, during which he would subsequently blow himself up with hidden explosives worn beneath his clothes.
A fan of dramatic effects, he even staged his wedding to Whitney Ward, muse, femme fatale, Fetish Queen and an artist herself. The groom made his entrance in a funerary casket and the bride’s train-bearers were dwarves, the whole ceremony comprising of a happy celebration of freaks and quality guests, each as eccentric as the romantic newly-weds.
For Joe Coleman is a collector of oddities. Fiji sirens, “Junior” (a foetus preserved in formaldehyde), wax anatomy sculptures and other morbid treasures can be admired at The Odditorium, a cabinet of curiosities which is also where the couple resides in Brooklyn.
Finally, Coleman’s personality and presence have been the object of an ongoing relationship with the visual communication medias. This is induced by his intervals on cinema or TV screens, via his collaborations with celebrities such as Asia Argento and Jim Jarmush, his long-time friendship with the likes of Lydia Lunch, but also through high-profile personalities who collect his works, such as Iggy Pop, Johnny Depp and H.R. Giger, no less.
But who hides behind the mask of the apocalyptic and visionary artist?
This is an encounter with an elegant, charming and humorous man.
Whitney & Joe