While surrounded by his art, Joe Coleman describes it as totems of the human experience, in all its primal glory and horror. There are emblems of love and devotion, of loss and remembrance, along with a portrait of a young murderer, wax replicas of bloodied severed heads, and jars of organs and tumors.
“(It’s about) a real need to understand humanity in its entirety,” says Coleman from the room he calls his “Odditorium,” an area filled with sideshow-style curiosities that confront a visitor as soon as he opens the door to his Brooklyn apartment.
Coleman, 59, has had a rich career as a painter of detailed, annotated portraits of cultural icons in a style that is sometimes compared with Bosch and Brueghel. He has also been a performance artist who, under the alias Professor Mombooze-o, bit off animal heads in a “geek” act and blew himself up with explosives.
His work has appeared in shows of outsider art as well as in major museums and the private collections of celebrities including Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch.
As he unflinchingly, distinctively documents the world around him, Coleman has carved out a unique niche that fuses the individualistic sensibility of a largely self-taught artist with a presence in pop culture.
Coleman’s work is often equated to iconography, and his earliest memory of making art is telling. When his mother took him to St. Mary’s Church near his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, at age 4 or 5, he drew impressions of Stations of the Cross and the Passion.
The pain of figures as beloved as Christ fascinated Coleman – but not only those who were regarded as divine.
“All the great saints had to go through this martyrdom, so great suffering makes great saints and great celebrities as well,” Coleman said.
In hearing the stories of martyrs’ lives, he believed a piece was left out, the story of the “shadow self.”
“We all know about the sufferings of Jesus and of the various saints but what about the person who is causing that suffering? What about the Roman soldier who stabbed Christ…or [those who] raped and killed St. Agnes?” he asked.
“There’s a great pain behind those people that have committed the atrocity as well.”
Coleman’s talent for art and his unusual predilection for visualizing the world’s underbelly was recognized early. His first well-known supporter was Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady, who added his drawing of garbage to her collection of children’s artwork.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did not follow a conventional educational path, briefly attending the School of Visual Arts in New York before striking out on his own.
Yet over time, Coleman has developed a personal process by which he creates his painstakingly intricate paintings. He thoroughly researches his subjects, through interviews and materials such as trial transcripts, and then uses a single-bristled brush and jewelers’ loupe to paint one square inch at a time, creating instinctually and meticulously. One work can take years.
“It feels like [the ideas are] inside the painting and that I’m getting it out, like archaeologists trying to refine their technique to find something they’ve never found before,” he says.
To portray Charles Manson, Coleman corresponded directly with his subject.
Manson appears as a three-headed figure, like a Hindu god, with each face representing the cult leader at various stages in his life. His hands reach into flames, as though he could mold hellish impulses like clay.
Around him are phrases relating to Manson Family crimes including “Helter Scelter” [sic] and “Death to Pigs.” Heads of the members of his entourage are strung around his neck, intestines spiral out from a shirt button, and pale beaten corpses of victims lurk in the periphery.
“He’s like a shadow self of Jesus. He’s a messiah of a death cult,” Coleman said.
Referring to his charisma, the artist added, “Manson has become a god. Celebrities are these gods that walk among mortal men, but he’s a dark god.”
In presenting Manson and other criminals in an illuminated fashion, Coleman is not condoning violence. Rather, he is reimagining a flip side to the angelic realm, not unlike gods of destruction or the underworld in polytheistic religions.
Among his other subjects have been Mary Bell, who murdered two children as a doll-faced 11-year-old, Carl Panzram, serial killer and rapist, and Albert Fish, a murderer and rapist of children and a cannibal.
“One of the reasons I go after Albert Fish to uncover him is if the worst monster of humanity has no chance of redemption or understanding, than what chance have any of us?” Coleman said.
To relate, Coleman says, his process is somewhat similar to method acting.
“You really have to become one with the subject and not judge,” he said.
“It is scary,” he admitted. “It’s a choice that I made and it is not easy to deal with a lot of them.”
At the same time, he believes such stories need to be heard and that no aspect of human nature should be shut out.
“We helped make the person that he became, all of humanity,” he said of someone like Fish or Manson. “There’s some part of [them] that’s in all of us and there’s some part of all of us that’s in [them].”
A similar searching quality can be found in Coleman’s performances, which were responses to topics such as his mother’s suffering from cancer and his father’s habitual violence.
In one performance about his mother’s death, Coleman projected old pornographic films from the 1950s on a paper screen. He hung from a harness attached the ceiling and burst through the screen hanging upside down, with dynamite strapped to his chest. His wife at the time cut him down and extinguished the explosives which contained blood.
With elements of a funeral ritual and a birth, with the harness calling to mind an umbilical cord, the performance was cathartic for the artist as well as viewers.
“It needed to hurt (physically),” he said. “That’s the motivation to do it.”
“There’s something about pain that is a real important part of life. It’s such a teacher.”
Coleman has retired such acts, no longer in the mind-frame they require.
“But I understand the pain in humanity and I’ve come from it,” he said. “I know the suffering that goes on in people.”
Empathy and curiosity have guided Coleman’s work, but there have been limits to his abilities to find inspiration in those who have committed atrocities.
“I’ve intentionally avoided doing Hitler or Stalin,” he said. “If I live long enough, maybe I’ll think I’m ready to tackle it. But I’m so interested in the individual. The ones that I’m most fascinated by are the ones that don’t have any power.
“Manson didn’t really have any power. He wasn’t a dictator. He was a beggar and small-time criminal. His mother was a prostitute. He was raped. He lived off of garbage. There’s nothing about his life that pointed to him being a god, so that becomes fascinating to me.”
Government and money muddy the force of personality that draws Coleman.
“I can see humanity more clearly in someone like Manson, who is a very tormented soul that has tormented others and has done horrific things, but he’s an easier one to see.”
Of someday approaching a figure like Hitler, he added, “it is a worthy thing for me to try to do. I hope one day I’ll feel strong enough to do it.”
Coleman’s works have instead taken on increasingly personal subjects. He painted a tribute to his late friend Indian Larry, decorating the frame with used parts of his motorcycle and Indian Head pennies and mounted the work on one of his shirts. (The backings and frames of his portraits often integrate meaningful fabrics and fetish objects).
And while the interest in celebrity has remained, he has never been restricted to the infamous. Other subjects have included Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, P.T. Barnum, Hank Williams, and artist Henry Darger.
For his latest project, he is working on companion portraits of himself and his wife, Whitney Ward, who he married at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore in 2000. It has taken seven years of work, and a documentary film is being made following his progress.
“I don’t know when my eyes will fail me or when my hands will fail me,” Coleman said. “One day, they will. It’s just the human condition. But while I still have the control of my hands and my eyes and my heart and my gut and they’re in sync, I want to make every day count, push myself as far as I can while I can.”