Joe Coleman “A CAVEMAN IN A SPACESUIT” Seconds #50, 1999
interviewed by Steven Cerio
JOE COLEMAN is one of the most recognized cult figures in American Art. He covers paintings with microscopic detail in order to lovingly skewer the mind and eye – but his paintings aren’t about paint: they’re graphic expressions of memory and intelligence. Coleman records his own inner knowledge like a Speed-crazed librarian in a mindset where “absorb!” is the command of the moment. He is part of a tradition which traces back to Bosch, Breughel, Durer and Albright.
SECONDS: What’s more visually powerful, sex or death?
COLEMAN: Death as an image is somehow more powerful. We get to experience sex – and even before you actually experience sex it might be even more compelling – but at the point of actually experiencing death, it’s too late to have it as a memory. So it’s like looking at something that you’ll have to eventually experience, which makes it even more of a mystery. Sex may have mysterious elements around it but it’s something adults engage in all the time. So even though they might be aroused by certain images, it’s still familiar.
SECONDS: Are the things that thrill people as adults the same as what thrilled them as children?
COLEMAN: For me that’s true. It hasn’t changed that much, although it’s become refined. You need a stronger thrill, but it’s in a similar direction. The same way with drugs, where you need a stronger hit to get off. You just keep upping the ante, to have a more intense thrill.
SECONDS: I know what you’re saying. I don’t feel I’ve changed at all since I was a kid. I still have the image of what art should be –
COLEMAN: Oh yeah, the drawings I did in childhood are not really that much different. The subject matter is very similar. I still have these drawings of somebody set on fire, another person beings stabbed, and Jesus being nailed to the cross. All these images are still a major part of my work – even though the work itself had become more refined, the inspirations are still almost exactly the same as they were when I was a child, even though I know more about how to get more in touch in those images and how to find out how they relate to history, how they relate to me, and how they can be conquered in the sense of conquering fears or overwhelming forces. In the same way, to capture an image of death and to project it in some way like a shaman’s sacred object – like if you own a photo of death, even though people don’t usually think about it literally, it kind of makes you feel like you have some power over it.
SECONDS: Why do people equate violence, death and pestilence with maturity, while perceiving happiness and bliss as immature qualities?
COLEMAN: There’s something about childhood that’s looked at as being innocent. But if you really look at children, they’re full of all kinds of cruelties – and they have sexual desires as well. But adults tend to look at children in the manner of Adam and Eve in the Garden Of Eden. Maturity, which is usually linked to sexual maturity, is like the expulsion from The Garden of Eden. And from then on, you’re living this kind of corrupted adulthood full of evil, which you don’t see in childhood. A child could do something really cruel to another child, and it’s not really considered evil because they’re still in paradise. But once they get old enough and do the same exact thing, all of a sudden they’re evil. It may have something to do with sexual maturity – somehow that corrupts the flesh. Remember, the tree Adam and Eve ate that contained the fruit of knowledge.
SECONDS: The whole concept of good and evil is sort of odd.
COLEMAN: Yeah, the concept of good and evil was formulated in order for civilization to work because you have to buy into this idea in order to live in a man-made environment. This was manmade rules; not nature’s rules because nature doesn’t really care, nature has no sense of good and evil.
SECONDS: You die and you go back into the ground and break down so nature can grow more plants.
COLEMAN: Yeah, and we do kind of the same thing with animals as we do with kids. We look at kids and animals, and they may do really horrible stuff but we look at them as being innocent. But we look at ourselves as being imperfect and having fallen from grace. I think we fell from grace when we created civilization – that’s when primordial sex became a big sin. We’ve reached this point in civilization where we can’t be the innocent animal that can slay another animal without it being evil. It’s pure, but we’ve lost that by becoming civilized.
SECONDS: I’m guessing from your work that you prefer to witness anguish over bliss.
COLEMAN: I don’t’ know if that holds true personally, but the work deals with more anguish than bliss, certainly. But I’m not sure that it’s more important for me to try and paint that stuff. What’s the point of painting a beautiful sunset? It works; there’s no need to transform it into anything. But when I paint really disturbing things, there’s some need to control it or define it or isolate it – to put charms around it to protect me from it. You don’t need to do those things to something beautiful necessarily, except the way I paint me and my girlfriend – which is trying to protect love and trying to prevent it from escaping. But that painting of bliss is connected to fear as well because then you can hold it when you’re afraid of losing it.
SECONDS: So you’re trying not to keep anything, you’re trying to exorcise it. Do you consider yourself enlightening by frightening or frightening by enlightening?
COLEMAN: It may be enlightening, but the only one I’m trying to enlighten is me. I can’t pretend to enlighten the world. It’s nice if that happens, but what’s really exciting for me is the engagement with my own enlightenment, for me to learn things through painting.
SECONDS: Most artists don’t like to admit that sort of thing. That’s where the real outsider art comes from, doesn’t it?
COLEMAN: Well, I think so. When it’s real – not when people are calling it that, but when it’s truly that. The whole term “outsider” I think is very condescending and it’s used to create a commodity, which really takes away from the purity of it. You’re giving it this term to sell it with, which is very contradictory and it corrupts it. The funny thing about outsider art is that twenty years ago you had artists who’d gone to the best universities in the country and when they opened their mouths everyone thought they were great artists because no one knew what the hell they were saying. Now you’ve got these people who’ve gone to the worst prisons and madhouses and when they open their mouths no one knew what the hell they’re saying either – and they think that makes a great artist. But really, neither are great artists. In the end, it’s the work that’ s really important. There’s nothing wrong with having mystery, but there’s also a lot to be said for something you could truly understand and feel compelled by when you see it.
SECONDS: Does the artist’s identity at some point become more important than the art?
COLEMAN: Yeah, certainly, that’s happening all the time with most modern art and it seems to be happening a lot in outsider art. These persons are judged by their life and not the art itself. It’s kind of like the huckster selling some real horrible life experiences – selling work that’s merited only by the person who’s paying. That should all be part of it but it should be intrinsically linked. The work has to stand up by itself, no matter what.
SECONDS: Do you have any problem with artists taking themselves very seriously?
COLEMAN: No. An artist taking themselves seriously is not a bad thing; that’s a good thing about the outsiders – they’re very earnest. That’s a good thing because there’s too many people being ironic.
SECONDS: Irony seems to be a staple of modern art.
COLEMAN: It’s very superficial. It’s just playing on the surface, acting very above it all; it’s not really getting in there. Once you jump down into the snakepit and you get your hands dirty, that’s when you really have something to offer.
SECONDS: Has the subculture been good to you?
COLEMAN: Sometimes it’s hard for me to thin there even is a subculture these days, it’s so subjective and so co-opted by the mainstream. I mean, Ed Wood was a major Hollywood movie – no one would’ve imagined that would’ve happened twenty years ago. That’s not to put down the movie because I thought it was great, but it’s just a strange time that we live in.
SECONDS: Yeah – it all got sucked up, starting with the music. Underground heroes became the mainstream successes. There used to be this quaintness – you do not want to share your underground heroes.
COLEMAN: Yeah, and it’s becoming harder all the time for that because the underground is disappearing – it’s constantly being sold to a big market. I don’t think there was a big market for so-called counterculture – but now there is, and it happened really fast.
SECONDS: What are your perceptions on mainstream Pop Culture?
COLEMAN: I don’t think I ever really got it, but I have personal interests. But I’m never gonna run out of things I enjoy – I collect old books and old movies and objects. None of that has changed over the years, and there’s never enough out there. As far as Pop Culture, I’m not really even sure what it is. Unless something’s put right to my face, I don’t see it. It’s just not something that’s important to me.
SECONDS: Your work has this insane librarian aspect with a sense of education about it.
COLEMAN: You’re probably right. I always collected history books and old religious art, too. My work is storytelling. Even though there’s a single image, there’s a whole novel with each painting, and every little image has a significance to it – nothing’s arbitrary. It does educate, I’m sure, but I was thinking more of being a storyteller rather than an educator. My grandfather was an ex-prizefighter that ran speakeasies in the Catskill Mountains during Prohibition, and I used to love hearing him tell stories. I’m not an educator in that I’m not trying to tell what people what to think. This is what interests me, and this is what I need to find out for myself – and I can’t tell you what you need to find out about.
SECONDS: The obsessive quality of your work reminds me of Adolf Wolfli –
COLEMAN: There’s a certain personality like that, and people who are not like that don’t understand it all. Some people have a problem looking at my work because there’s too much going on, while other people are the opposite – they need all the simulation. White rooms scar me – my place is crammed with tons and tons of stuff, and that’s how I feel comfortable. I have one room that’s a shrine, it looks halfway between a dime museum and a church, and my work room has every corner of the walls pasted with newspaper clippings, photos, posters, decals, nailed to or taped to every square inch of the walls.
SECONDS: Are your portraits done with empathy or envy – or both?
COLEMAN: It’s more like method acting, where you become that person and you find those things in the character which are like you. In that way, they’re self-portraits. It also comes out of dreams of my home, especially where I grew up, across the street from a cemetery, which very much became a part of my work, stylistically as well. I spent a lot of time playing in the graveyard and studying the headstones – the lettering in my work dates back to that period of my life.
SECONDS: Type styles seem to really interest you.
COLEMAN: Yeah, because that’s something I’m really engaged with – I’m engaged with color, texture, lighting; and words have a similar level of visual engagement. For me, words are another part of creating this dense surface I’m after. I see words as very electric and vibrating – they have a sonic quality. To me, that’s part of the way of creating a sense of experience. In my experience right now, I’m talking to you and I have all these visuals going on. There’s visuals forming form the words I’m talking, and for the words that are also going on in my head. All these things put together are part of a total experience.
SECONDS: Aldous Huxley said people take words at face value; when you describe sensations like vertigo or angst or anger or tiredness, you can’t fully explain them.
COLEMAN: Yeah, sometimes it takes art to describe it.
SECONDS: If you had mainstream America’s attention for one minute and you could expose them to anything, what would it be?
COLEMAN: In terms of mainstream or not, it wouldn’t be one of my concerns. I share the things that I have an interest in. It’s more about sharing these experiences with people in general that share things that are of interest to me. I don’t think of what to say to people because they’re mainstream or counterculture; it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is what I’m feeling at a specific time – what I’m excited about. Where it comes from, I’m not interested. If they’re willing to listen, that’s a start. But if I find out that I’m talking to someone who really can’t understand, then I give up and go to somebody else.
SECONDS: One has to serve one’s self – some people would see that as selfishness.
COLEMAN: But the self is all you’ve got. It’s foolish to try and to claim you’re not selfish – it’s impossible to survive if you’re not selfish. The idea of trading is selfish but both parties get something out of it. It’s mutually beneficial. The point is, “What’s in it for me?” – which is honest and direct. I’m more mistrustful of the person who says he’s doing something for me than the person who says he’s doing something for himself.