Saturday, September 30, 2006

Who is Joe Coleman?

The recent entry of the NY artist, Martin Wilner into my flat files has brought me back to a post merge did on one of Martin's, artist friends-- Joe Coleman. I will be seeing a new documentary on Joe with Merge next week. The rest of this post is by merge.

A couple of years ago I happened to stumble across a short-lived television series called
Disinformation. The show was a sort of post-modern news magazine, detailing outsider artists, conspiracy theorists and odd cultural phenomena. Despairingly, the creators of the show (who are also coincidentally the men behind a controversial publishing house) were not able to get it aired in the US. The four episodes that were made were shown on BBC television. One of those episodes contained a segment with an introduction to a Brooklyn-based artist named Joe Coleman.

Coleman made a lot of noise as a performance artist, when he became known for strapping explosives to his chest and detonating himself a mere few feet from shocked audiences. He had other strange proclivities too, including biting the heads off of live mice. Disinformation collected a few snippets of those early performances, along with Coleman's elaborately detailed, comicbook style paintings. The artist portrayed himself, his friends, loved ones, serial killers, Jesus, and his enemies, in post-apocalyptic settings reminiscent of Bosch and Brueghel. His process is so meticulous that he wears magnifying glasses and employs a single-hair brush to paint. The artist also has his own private museum, called the Odditorium, that he allowed the television crew to view. In this collection are human and animal oddities, the grisly remains of biblical saints, and a genuine pickled punk affectionately-named "Junior". The entire Disinformation segment was a mere tantalizing glimpse at this strange and dark figure.

Fortunately for me the Disinformation label has recently issued a DVD of Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman. In this fine documentary by Robert-Adrian Pejo, we are privy to a substantive exploration of the man, his history and his work. We get to see him at work in his studio... blowing off steam with his companions in the Odditorium... at work and play with various friends and associates... and yes... performing his explosive act as Professor Mombooze-o. We also get a heaping helping of his homespun philosophy. Coleman believes we are living in a "Time of Death", in which perversion is natural. He also likens humanity to a cancer threatening the health of the earth.

Despite his dark tendencies, Coleman is exposed as a rational thinker, a romantic mate, and a generally nice guy. Interviews with friends, former girlfriends (including the lovely Dian Hansen), a sibling, and others demystify the artist, and give valuable insights into the man. It's not surprising when we learn just how obsessed Coleman is with Catholicism. I found quite a lot to like about him- we share a wide array of interests including carnivals, moral relativity, freaks, film noir, the occult, horror movies, true crime, and cults. He's a shamanic persona, who is not afraid to speak truth in the face of glaring hypocrisies. You could do a hell of a lot worse than tracking down this film.

No comments: