Film brings Joe Coleman into focus

July 09, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Visitors to the American Visionary Art Museum know Joe Coleman: He is the painter of morbid images of human suffering, whose work combines the observant humor of R. Crumb and the detailed genius of Hieronymous Bosch.

Coleman is the provocative center of an engrossing documentary about his life and work, "R.I.P. Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman," in which filmmaker Robert-Adrian Pejo wisely allows the artist to speak for himself.

And speak he does, on subjects as far-ranging as global ecology, the population explosion, Catholicism, sexuality and his own troubled inner life. Attractive, articulate and convincing, Coleman turns out to be that rare artist who is as engaging as his art. This film heightens the experience of seeing his paintings, without once threatening to pierce their inherent mystery.

The audience meets Coleman as he is holding forth on one of his central philosophies: that diseases like the Ebola and AIDS viruses, as well as war, deviant sexuality and serial murder, are simply ways for an overburdened planet to rid itself of the human cancer that has invaded it. "This is not a time to give birth, it's a time to die," he rants. "The taker of human life is the cure. You're the problem!"

By the end of this lively film, which follows Coleman on his ambulations from his Brooklyn apartment through Coney Island and to the rural home of rockabilly star Hasil Adkins, many viewers will be, if not convinced, at least sympathetic to Coleman's point.

Through conversations with the artist, as well as interviews with his psychiatrist, author Harold Schechter, Coleman's brother Bill, the painter's ex-wife and an ex-girlfriend, his world-view becomes increasingly coherent and his artistic enterprise completely comprehensible. Working with magnifying glasses and brushes made with a single hair, Coleman constructs his troubling, confrontational and technically brilliant paintings in order to bring order to a world that for him is a frightening swirl of chaotic impulses.

Some scenes are not for the squeamish: A scene in which Coleman performs an autopsy may prove objectionable to some, as may shots of him biting the heads off live mice or availing himself of the wares at a sex club. Avert your eyes if you must, but keep your ears open. Coleman's bent wisdom, and his breathtaking commitment to artistic discipline, deserve to be shared.

Joe Coleman and one-man "psychobilly" band Hasil Adkins will appear at tonight's screening of "R.I.P Rest in Pieces" at the Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St. They will answer questions after the movie and sign "books, posters, tapes and body parts." The show starts at 7: 15 p.m.

Coleman will present a slide talk and book signing at 6 p.m. tomorrow at AVAM, 800 Key Highway. At 7 p.m., Hasil Adkins will perform with Baltimore's own T.T. Tucker Band. Beer, wine and food from Nick's Seafood will be available. Admission is $10. Call 410-244-1900.

`R.I.P. Rest in Pieces: Portrait of Joe Coleman'

Starring Joe Coleman, Jim Jarmusch, Hasil Adkins

Directed by Robert-Adrian Pejo

Released by Media Luna

Unrated (some language, nudity, violence, sexuality, animal cruelty, graphic autopsy scene)

Running time 88 minutes

Sun score ***

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