What he sees is what you get Art: Joe Coleman's horrifying paintings at AVAM mirror his bleak perception that life is hell.

November 22, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Joe Coleman has the rare ability to create truly horrifying art.

His paintings, on view at the American Visionary Art Museum and in a new book he will sign there today, are populated with hideously deformed humans, monstrous acts and statements of nihilistic perversity. Cities disintegrate, people maim and kill one another, bodies have gaping, gory holes and swelling, pustular growths. Coleman is an artist who sees life as, literally, hell on Earth.

In "The Victory of Hell," a six-armed Lucifer in the form of a hermaphrodite presides over a scene of utter depravity. A soldier holding his own severed head approaches the Temple of Rage, and a sexily clad female shows herself off in front of the Temple of Lust. Diseased bodies frame the scene, and snake-like texts proclaim the values of the underworld: "Violence is holy"; "Revenge is peace"; "Disorder is salvation." Coleman takes pains to let his audience know this is not meant to be thought of as fantasy. At the center of the Lucifer figure is a mirror, in which the viewer sees himself, and beside it the inscription: "None of us can go to Hell. For Hell is the place where we live."

To look at the hideousness of Coleman's art is to wonder what kind of being could have such a vision. What a surprise, then, to meet Joe Coleman and find someone articulate, polite, sincere in manner and ready to explain that no, those aren't his own personal values, they're what's out there.

"I see hell as here on this thing we call Earth. Or life," he says. "It's true that murder is a way history progresses. And nature is in itself a very cruel thing. I'm trying to make sense of the things in life that are the most distressing, because to me hell is about the things we find hardest to digest."

"Joe's paintings are an incredibly complex architectural vision of the universe experienced by somebody who is incredibly sensitive to that which is truly horrifying in the world," says Katharine Gates, Coleman's friend and the publisher of his latest book, "Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman." She adds, "It's his sensitivity to the horror that's out there that it's about, not that he's trying to be horrible."

Coleman, who turns 42 today, lives and works (eight hours a day, five days a week) in New York and enjoys an ever-widening following. He uses no gallery but has collectors on a waiting list, and his work is already owned by well-known people such as Iggy Popp, Johnny Depp and the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. His following will only be enhanced by the publication of "Original Sin," which contains reproductions of 26 of his paintings and essays by Jarmusch, poet and art critic John Yau and literature professor Harold Schechter.

Coleman's vision is a composite of his distressed view of the world and his personal turmoil. He grew up in Norwalk, Conn., across the street from a cemetery that must at times have seemed a peaceful alternative to life. He had a violent, alcoholic father. His mother was an excommunicated Catholic "whose sexual energies," his biography at the Visionary Art Museum says, "were sometimes focused on her son."

It was only in 1994, years after the death of both parents, that he painted "Mommy/Daddy." In it, he divides the canvas down the middle and paints a single figure, half woman on one side and half man on the other. The woman has on a seductive dress, and the man has a face distorted as if by uncontrollable anger. On the mother's side are the words "Tenderness," "Guilt," "Original Sin," "Tears," and on the father's side are "Self-Hatred," "Rage!" "Alcoholism," "Drunken Tirades."

Such pictures, Coleman says, can help him deal with inner demons, but not completely exorcise them. "It's not like a dime-store Freud that you figure out a certain traumatic childhood experience and then everything's fine. But there is some relief."

Not everyone has a childhood as deeply traumatized as Coleman's, but all childhoods leave a residue of ambivalent feelings about parents. A picture such as "Mommy/Daddy" might have the effect of helping others to come to terms with their feelings. And Coleman's work in general, hard as it is to look at, may help the viewer to find he is not in sole possession of the darker side of human nature. That's fine, Coleman says, but not his primary aim.

"I'm not on a mission for anybody but me," he says. "If they [his paintings] could do that for other people it could be a nice thing, especially if they have experienced some of the same things and talk to me about it. But it's not my main mission."

Essentially self-taught, Coleman has been drawing since, as a small child, he drew pictures of the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic church his mother took him to. When Coleman was 6, in a rare act of kindness, his father, himself an amateur painter, gave Coleman a set of paints.

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