Exclusive Interview: Myth and Reality – The Art of Dying with Joe Coleman
Perhaps one of the most interesting and challenging artists working in modern portraiture , Joe Coleman brings us ecstatic visions of martyrdom and myth. His paintings tell the stories of the life and often tragic death of his subjects whom he culls from the dark side of pop-culture. Dark celebrities. Serial killers. Mad artists. All have had their bodies and lives examined through Joe’s unique eye.
Collected by the likes of Iggy Pop, HR Giger and Leonardo DiCaprio, Joe’s work has been driving viewers into deep meditations on the lives of singular human beings and the events that shaped them into modern legends. FANGORIA had the pleasure of once again spending some time with Joe to talk about his work and 3 paintings in particular: “American Venus”, his captivating portrait of Jayne Mansfield, the shocking Shamanic saga of Ed Gein, and the life and music of Carlo Gesualdo in “Tenebrae for Gesualdo”.
FANGORIA: To kick things off I’d like to talk a bit about the things that influence you. There’s a lot of Catholicism in there…
JOE COLEMAN: I was brought up Irish Catholic – and I like to say Irish Catholic because there is a certain slant – it’s like a Pagan/Celtic slant to the Catholicism of the Irish. I believed very devoutly when I was young but I came to find so many contradictions and such hypocrisy in the Catholic Church that I don’t even know if I even believe in God…I’m not saying I do or don’t, I’m just not sure anymore.
I do find the strengths that I learned were in the ritual and the drama and the idea of faith. The idea of the narrative and the body’s narrative. All the saints I grew up learning about, they’d all suffered some kind of great suffering. Whether it was a saint that had their eyes gouged out or beheaded, they became saints from a great martyrdom – a great tragedy. I thought that was really powerful.
I began to think that it’s the shadow-self of those saints that is just as important. The shadow self being – for instance – what about the person who committed that atrocity on that saint? The soldier that stabbed Jesus or crowned him with thorns. That side has to be just as compelling. One would not exist without the other. It seemed almost as if their side of the story needed to be told.
FANG: So many people really despise Judas Iscariot when he was necessary. He was a key player in the drama that played out in the Bible. You need those elements in order to have that whole mythology. It’s a beautiful mythology. I’m not a religious person but I think I’m always going to be Catholic. It gets in you.
COLEMAN: It gets pretty deep. It’s captured my imagination from early childhood. When I was sitting in my church as just a child and my mom, because I was bored, she would just give me paper and pencil and crayons. So I’m looking around and seeing this guy being crucified in relief and on the stained glass windows. The crucifixion figure at the altar. It was pretty overwhelming and that’s what I drew. My first drawings were the stations of the cross and I used a pencil for the figures and the only crayon I used was red for the blood. I still have some of those drawings.
FANG: Going from being Catholic and that influence on your work I also see a lot of folklore and pop-mythology being a big influence.
COLEMAN: Yeah. There was the influence of comic books. Especially the 50s comic books, the old EC comics. I also lived near Bridgeport, Connecticut where P.T. Barnum lived, and every year there would be this Barnum festival and that’s where I saw these sideshow banners. They were really compelling and almost had a strange connection to the Catholic icons. Often these paintings that were painted on banners outside of a freak show were more scary than what you’d actually see once you got inside of the tent. There was something lurid in that. Seeing those things as a child – seeing a banner that said “Lobster Boy” and this kid is half lobster and half boy. It’s living inside of that tent? That had a big influence on me too.
Text is so important for me in painting. It’s such an unusual thing for a painter but it’s something important to me because they are all a narrative and the text to me is just as important as the images. The words influence the image in the way they are created, it’s the text and the way that the text looks it can change the effect of the image. All these things contribute to a story. There has been times where not only do I use the text and the image but I use musical notation in the paintings as well.
FANG: Another big influence on your work is obviously your wife Whitney.
COLEMAN: Absolutely. My life has changed so much with her in such a positive way. I’m doing a life-sized portrait of her right now. It’s a three year project because it’s also got her life story in it as well. It’s a companion to the big self-portrait I did. I’m looking forward to seeing them together.
FANG: You are known as a great storyteller, both as a guy just sitting around telling stories but also in your work. Do you prefer the myth or the reality?
COLEMAN: That’s a pretty good question. I’m surprised nobody ever asked me that one before, it’s a good one! It makes me think of the John Ford movie THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. When legend becomes fact, print the legend.
I think that I struggle with that when I’m doing historical pieces. I do change things to suit my needs and it seems that all of history, the idea of something being the truth – it’s a concept that the minute you try to put a border around it, it just kind of escapes it because it changes all the time. Each point of view of a certain incident is going to be different. You get so many contradictory accounts at some point I just let my instincts guide me. It’s as if the story was a living thing and it’s going to tell the story that it needs to tell in spite of the so-called truth.
When I’m doing a historical figure like Gein, I want him to speak. So he might even be lying to me but I want him to have his say. So I think that’s more important even it’s it not the truth. If that’s what he says then I want the chance for him to tell his side.
FANG: Well let’s use that to get right into talking about “American Venus”, your portrait of Jayne Mansfield. So we talk about myth vs. reality, in the painting Jayne is decapitated…
COLEMAN: Which is controversial, whether she got decapitated or not. For me she had to be decapitated. You can see I split the painting in such a way that it’s like the shards of glass and her head is literally being sliced off of her body in the way the painting is shaped. It also relates to the great martyrdom, in that very moment where she becomes a saint, becomes Holy in my way of looking at things. She’s a dark goddess. This was what needed to happen to her to attain that mythic status.
We also look at a period in time where the kind of stunts she was pulling – they were still being written about, but if she was doing the same stuff today she’d be really big on reality TV! When she was doing it in the 50s though, it destroyed her. She was a vision of things to come.
FANG: She was ahead of her time and by all accounts a brilliant woman.
COLEMAN: Absolutely. She lived big and lived her fantasy, what with the wild animals that lived in her home. She lived over the top. Like a goddess. She married Hercules!
FANG: One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about the Mansfield story is the whole Anton LaVey angle and the curse. Tell us about that.
COLEMAN: She was ordained as a High Priestess in the Church of Satan by Anton LaVey and there were other members like Sammy Davis Jr. and other celebrities that really got into it during that time but Jayne particularly found something really important there that I certainly can understand because she is so earthy. So sensual.
Anton had this wonderful story that I don’t know if it’s true or not but when the car accident happened he says he was cutting out clippings from the newspaper about Jayne and accidentally cut her head off at the same time she was decapitated in the car accident.
FANG: Going back to myth vs. Reality, that’s a great myth right there!
Let’s talk about Gein. I think it’s a great piece and a great jumping off point to talk about your views on serial killers and how we lack these outlets in our society for the dark things within us.
COLEMAN: Ed Gein is a good example. I can relate it back to my Dillinger painting. I think it’s important to talk about the two to some extent. They do supply a need in the culture. When you have a culture that believes in this one God that is all good, it leaves no room for what reality shows to be a dark side to life itself. In many religions there is room for the dark gods right within the religion. Here in America – the dark gods of the 1800s were Jesse James, the early 1900’s it was people like John Dillinger and Babyface Nelson. They had a very similar role, these outlaw gods captured the fantasies of everyone to some degree to finally just take what wasn’t given to them by society. It’s a kind of heroic outlaw, in times of poverty and the depression. People were starving.
When you have a society like the one we’ve lived in now for quite a few years where even the poorest people have meat on the table, things have changed so the Dillingers are a little bit outdated. This new kind of dark god appeared – the serial killer.
Ed Gein came in the 50’s, the beginning of that after WWII. The beginning of a really fat America where we could finally relax…
FANG: And then there comes Ed Gein…
COLEMAN: There he comes, dressed in the flesh of his victims. He did it very much like an old Shaman. If you think of some primitive tribal Shaman. He’s got the skulls on his bedpost and is out howling at the moon. It reaches deep into our ancient dark gods. You can see a bit of Kali, the primeval images that he conjures.
FANG: These things seem to need to find a way to be expressed and if there is no accepted way for it to happen, no path for it to go down it’s going to find a way.
COLEMAN: It’s going to squeeze out of these pores. These wounds in our culture.
Ed Gein is also important to me because I did an actual autopsy in Budapest. I did this one on a woman that would have been as old as my mother if she had still been alive so I could understand that sense of cutting open a real human body. I was fortunate that the medical examiner was a strong supporter of my work and allowed me to do this. I could feel everything. He’s been doing this his whole life and he’s had to compartmentalize these feelings inside himself to do that job, he has to shut a certain part of his psyche down in order to do the work. But that’s not the way I did it.
I studied forensic pathology and he was there to guide me so I knew what to do but that’s not the same as what goes through you when you do something like that. I could feel that feeling of crossing over a taboo and then going into this other realm. I could just understand a little bit of Eddie from that.
FANG: It’s the ecstasy of the extreme. When you go into these minorities of human experience that the average person will never sense in their lives.
COLEMAN: Certainly I treated the body with respect but I wasn’t able to, nor could I if I wanted to, shut the feelings down because I hadn’t gone through what Janosh (the medical examiner) had gone through. It was powerful. Some of the footage is in the documentary that was done on me a few years ago.
FANG: In a way it was this strange communion with Ed.
COLEMAN: It was. It was.
FANG: So now let’s talk about “Tenebrae”. This is a really fascinating story and a really singular human being, which I think all of your subjects are.
COLEMAN: His music is so moving. You can feel the guilt and the pain in his music. It’s so moving and sad and tortured.
FANG: And so unlike the music of his time.
COLEMAN: Right. It was so experimental.
FANG: So the story is he murders his wife…
COLEMAN: And his wife’s lover. He also later murdered his own child because he believed it wasn’t really his child, it was the child of the lover of his wife. He kept their bodies on display after he killed them and there is a place that supposedly still houses the actual bodies. You can still visit them. He did some really interesting things too. He levelled the forest around his castle as a penance. I think he really devoted his life’s music to trying to make sense, have penance, come to terms and just to deal with those murders and it produced some of the most amazing music ever written.
FANG: It’s unreal and so unlike anything else that was done at the time and for hundreds of years after. It took a long time for the world to catch up with what he was doing.
COLEMAN: He was like the Captain Beefheart of his period.
FANG: He was really into reliquaries and was after one of his dead Uncle which he thought would heal him from his torment.
COLEMAN: Which I really identify with, what with my collection of reliquaries and the whole Odditorium really.
FANG: There is a real power in that stuff, in how we imbue these artifacts with something of their owners. They hold some power still.
COLEMAN: They do and the objects themselves are storytellers. The people that own them are almost like the vessel for the object to talk through. That’s part of their power. They compel you. You almost have to talk about it, otherwise why would you need to possess it?
I have this wax St. Agnes that supposedly houses the real saint beneath the wax. It has real human bone, but whether it’s the actual saint, who knows? But the fact that it was worshipped as such makes it holy. Talk about the myth and the reality: if you did a DNA test you may find out it wasn’t the saint but the fact that it was worshipped makes it into the saint.
FANG: That’s what gives it the power right? It’s like transubstantiation. If we can make a wafer and some wine the flesh and the blood surely we can make whatever bone is in there the body of the saint.
COLEMAN: Absolutely. It’s the same thing. It reminds me of things like Barnum’s Fiji Mermaids. It’s a hoax about a Fiji Mermaid but I have some that were owned by a ticket agent for Barnum so those are like more “real” Fiji Mermaids than the later imitations. It gets kind of crazy. If it’s the first hoax it’s worth more. It’s a truer hoax.
FANG: You seem to have these personal relationships with your subjects. How long do you spend immersing yourself in who they are?
COLEMAN: That depends. I use my instincts. I do the same kind of research that any biographer would do. Interviewing people, if it’s historical I’m looking up court records or books on the case or interviewing experts on it. The time that it takes varies from painting to painting. Also picture the fact that I don’t do any sketching beforehand, I work on a square inch at a time and as I’m learning things it appears on the painting so I don’t know what the whole composition is going to be. I let the painting tell me what it wants to be. Sometimes when I run out of room I’m compelled to paint the frame as well but that’s the course it takes. I let it speak through me.
FANG: Do you feel an obligation to the subjects of your work to treat them well?
COLEMAN: Yeah. I do have a responsibility to them – as I said before, to let them have their say. I don’t want to judge at all. They deserve to tell their side of the story. You may not like it but maybe you learn something from it. There is value in learning from them because of their unique experience. That’s why it’s important to let them talk.
FANG: What do you make of serial killer fans? Does that turn you off?
COLEMAN: Sometimes it turns me off. It seems like trading cards. Like they aren’t really interested. The scary moral and psychological implications of the existence of these people and how much it says about us and all of humanity, it’s something that I think shouldn’t be looked at in a superficial way. I’ve corresponded with Charles Manson and it’s not because I think it’s really cool to hang out with Charlie, it’s because he has important things to say.
If you want to talk about the real questions in life and the real questions about morality and reason, these are people who have pushed themselves and gone right over the edge. So who are you going to talk to? These are the people who have really confronted that. What do they think, being on the other side of morality, humanity and reason?
11 Works by Joe Coleman are featured at the Halle St. Pierre Gallery in Paris, France, as part of the exhibit HEY! MODERN ART & POP CULTURE, PART II, running through August 23rd, 2013 : http://www.hallesaintpierre.org/category/exposition/en-cours/
You can also get more Joe in this astounding documentary – RIP: REST IN PIECES – A PORTRAIT OF JOE COLEMAN