Interview with Joe Coleman

Interview with Joe Coleman by Susanne Pfeffer

Reprinted with permission from Internal Digging, the catalogue from the KW Institut exhibition. Susanne Pfeffer was the curator of the exhibition.

Susanne Pfeffer: What are your earliest memories of making art? What brought you to painting?

Joe Coleman: When I was maybe four or five years old, in the garage of our house on Ward Street, my father had a bunch of house paints, big cans of paint down in the garage along with the lawnmower, the garden shears and all his tools. I saw these really big paint cans and I just opened them and started painting the wall in the garage. I just put up as many colors as I could on the wall. My parents freaked out when they saw it. They decided I’d ruined the wall, but it was left like that for a long time. I was just compelled to dip the brush into these big cans of paint and start putting paint on the wall.

That was probably like the oldest memory of making—I don’t know about art, I don’t know what the word means—but it was the first time I painted. Then, sometime later, my Mom always took us to church on Sunday. My father never went, he was always sleeping off the hangover from the night before. I was always fascinated by the stations of the Cross that were done in relief in the Catholic church that we went to. It was called St Mary’s. It’s a very common thing in a Catholic church to have the stations of the Cross leading to the altar. I was just fascinated by them. All these images of this guy being tortured pretty brutally. They were pretty compelling images.

And then, right at the altar, which everyone’s attention is drawn to, and that the priest speaks under, is this guy nailed to a cross. There was something holy about the violence that we—or at least I—was experiencing there. It felt like we were all worshiping this violent trauma that had happened to this person many, many years ago before I was born. At that time I knew nothing about who this person was except that he suffered these great atrocities. It was kind of exciting, too. The violence was exciting.

The qualities of the horror movies I was watching on television didn’t seem that different from the horror in these scenes in church. The most violent images you could see on TV would be in “Chiller Theater” which was a monster movie on Saturday nights—of course I was glued to the set. There was a horror host called “Zacherly" he was at my 50th birthday party, and I had never met him before. But he was a big influence on me as a little kid. He would wear a Dracula cape and introduce “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and all these low-budget monster movies that I would get excited about.

When I was a little kid, my Mom always encouraged me, gave me stuff to draw with. In church she gave me paper to draw on. I had a pencil that I was drawing with and I had my crayons, but the only color I wanted to use was red, and I only used the red for blood. I did drawings of the figures with the pencil, but I didn’t want to color in the figures, I only wanted to put the blood on. I still have some of those drawings.

SP: So already as a child you had a feeling that it was important to keep them?

JC: Well, I think it started out with my mother thinking it was important to preserve them. She was the most beautiful woman and she aspired to be an actress. So she understood the value and importance of artistic expression or some kind of expression, and she loved the things that I was making. But when I got older she started to get weirded out by them. When I was younger she would save my things, and she told me I wasn’t stupid. It’s embarrassing, but she would say “You’re better than everyone.” When I was a little kid in first grade some teacher would yell at me and I’d say, “Well I’m better than you, my Mom’s far better than you.” There’s good and bad in that. The good part of being told it is that it gives you a certain amount of confidence and trust in your instinct that you’re right, no matter what anyone else says—not so many people have that basic confidence. I do know that those words helped me all the time. They helped me to trust myself. Because even when I was a little kid, when I did something wrong, I knew that I did something wrong. So if I trust myself, I know what’s right and what’s wrong, I know when I’m doing something good and when I’m doing something bad and when I’m doing something that counts, that’s precious, that means something. I know it internally.

SP: You mentioned that as you grew older your mother started to be disturbed when she saw your drawings.

JC: Yes. Even in the early years, when you have a little kid that’s doing these bloody scenes there’s a certain charm about it. But when I became a teenager and it was still like that, all of a sudden the charm was gone. It was as if there was some kind of psychological problem with the kid. It’s true, I did have problems. I was a pyromaniac, I set the school field on fire.

SP: Can you explain why?

JC: I was compelled. There was something about the fire-setting that was creative. It was a way of expressing pain that was at home, in a really destructive way, a way of making physical my fears and anxieties. When you’re creating this fire you’re taking it out of yourself and putting it into something. Then you see it. It’s part of the creative process for me. It gets called pathological or something like that, especially at the time, but I think it’s linked to the whole creative process. My work dealt with areas like that for a long time and some of that stuff is destructive, and self-destructive. I know that there are people who have done things like that who end up with their lives being really tragic and terrible. But that’s why I have a certain amount of empathy for people whose lives took that direction but who as children—I feel—had similar feelings as I did. Their lives took a different path.

SP: Would you say that doing paintings plays an important role in this context? Does the creative energy you put into painting help you to get a hold on your life?

JC: Yes, it definitely helps to get a hold on your life. Especially the way I work, the process of not worrying about the whole—not worrying about what the picture is going to look like when I finish—but only concentrating on every day, for the eight hours I put into the process, I’m only concerned about a square inch. It’s a way of—how should I say—a way of focusing all of your fears and anxieties and desires and the things that become overwhelming and putting it down. And then all of a sudden it’s OK, you don’t have to worry about it. It’s been captured here, then you go on to the next day. It’s no longer a burden. It’s like a release.

SP: I would like to hear a bit about your working methods. You don’t do sketches for your paintings, and as you just mentioned you don’t know at the beginning what the whole is going to become. Is it true that you always start at the edges and work to the center? Does that mirror your general approach to the subjects of your paintings, for example, serial killers, hillbillies, escape artist, elephant man: first you research them and then get progressively closer to their personalities?

JC: Yes, I rarely start at the middle. My instinct tells me to work from the outside. I think that it’s a way of getting closer to the subject. When I start the subject, it may be somebody that I’ve always been fascinated by, but when I decide to do a painting of them, then it requires more intense research. So even if I might be familiar with the subject, I’m still a little bit trepidatious. I start with things about me and little things that I know, and as it progresses, and as I’m doing research and interviewing people, it becomes tighter until I get to the point at which I’m comfortable with the subjects. At which point the main figure comes in. That seems to be the reason why I usually choose the outside. But it’s funny, because, even though I’ve chosen the outside, by the time I get to the centre, it’s a self-portrait. So it’s really just come full-circle. Even though I was feeling trepidatious at the start about whether I know the person or not, by the time I’m finished, I know the person, and he’s me. He becomes me and I become him.

SP: What is striking about your works is that a lot of the paintings and portraits in them are composed like a Byzantine or medieval icon. By applying this well-known, traditional and unfailing mode of pictorial composition, the people you are portraying—who have a lot of violence in them—acquire the aura of the classical icon.

JC: Well, that’s because they should. The stories that I’m telling are the stories that are truly important. The stories about St Sebastian and St Peter that you see in the works you’re talking about are just quaint for a modern audience. They don’t have any real teeth, no real balls for a modern society. The people of our time, I’m not just speaking for myself, if they go to see some so-called primitive tribe do a traditional dance and ritual, it’s just laughable. They don’t feel anything. The context it came from has been lost. The primitive painters, the early Flemish, medieval and early Renaissance painters and the illuminators of manuscripts knew how to tell these amazing, beautiful stories. So I love the tradition that it comes from because I’m a storyteller and I love to tell stories. But I want to tell stories that are important today. They were talking about people that were important at the time. Certainly the stories of the tragic lives of these great Christian martyrs were very important and had value for the period from which they came. But for the period I live in the stories that should be told and the great martyrs of today whose stories are important are people like Mary Bell, Carl Panzram and Jane Mansfield. These are the stories that speak to me. And I think that if they speak that much to me and if I come from this period, then other people must, or will probably, feel the same connection. Because the Christian view has come to the point where there’s this all-good one God, and that’s insane. It doesn’t represent the crazy tapestry that is humanity. Going back to so-called primitive tribes: they would have, in their worship, a god of fire, of disease, and for the things they fear there would be gods to house those fears. Even in Greek myths you have all these gods that have the emotions of jealousy and rage. In a society that does not allow for that order of complexity, where there’s only one all-good God, the gods like the Greek gods, the ones that we have—like the heroes of Homer and so on—come out of the back doors. They’re people that come from pornography, serial killers.

What I’m saying is that all these stories need to be stories that we can all interpret in our own way and find the truth that’s within ourselves. The case of Mary Bell speaks a truth to the viewer, or to someone who researches the case. That’s what’s important: how it touches you. All these characters are dealing with the traumas of what it means to be a human being in this crazy fucking world that we are living in right now.

SP: Would you go as far as to say that people such as the serial killers are the Greek gods of today?

JC: Yes, they are. But not just the serial killers. I would say the same thing for Jane Mansfield and even Anna-Nicole Smith. She’s a Greek goddess. She’s being worshipped. She houses this essence because we put that on her. We’ve made her into that. That’s where it comes from: faith.

SP: I would like to concentrate for a moment on the serial killers. It seems you’re quite obsessed with their stories.

JC: I think serial killers are really saint-like. They are shamans that go into these dark places. They are like these rugged individuals of the old American mythology such as John Dillinger and Jesse James. But they are much farther into the abyss because the old outlaws like Dillinger and Jesse James were more understandable to their culture. They lived among people of the same poor class who wished that they could do like Dillinger did, let’s say. Dillinger looks around and sees the depression and all these rich people that are having the best of life, the best food, the best cars, the best women, and he thinks like “Wow, why can’t I have that?” and “I’m just gonna take it”, you know. “I’m gonna take it by force!” I mean, most of the world takes by force, but he’s an individual who, because he didn’t have it, just grabs through physical force. It created a certain kind of—even though he’s an outlaw, even though he’s a criminal, even though everyone knows that what he’s doing is wrong and that there’s something fundamentally immoral about it—there’s still a kind of heroism to a character like that.

SP: … like Robin Hood.

JC: Yes, and there’s something charismatic about people like that. But then people like Dillinger became kind of quaint and folksy and lost the ability to be truly subversive in culture. In his time Dillinger was a subversive, like Che Guevara, showing the anarchy spirit. He was truly heroic in that way. But for our world and the times we live in Dillinger is just too quaint. The serial killer is the true subversive. The serial killer has become the embodiment of the true antihero. Dillinger murdered in order to gain things that he felt he deserved but wasn‘t given. He put his life on the line and murdered to obtain these things. But in the culture we live in today even the poor have a TV set and eat meat at their table three times a day—maybe it is McDonald’s, but that’s unlike Dillinger’s and Jesse James’s time when the poor struggled every day to put bread on their table and to survive. We live in a decadent society. America is very decadent now. Even the poor can be lazy. They have plenty of time on their hands. So the serial killer represents this resentment, the internal resentment of life itself and embodies the strange desires that our culture is burdened with. The idea that you kill just simply to be somebody. “I am going to go out and kill just to have my name in the newspaper.”

Ed Gein is different. He is a more poignant case. Ed Gein is truly like a shaman. Gein goes into these dark corners of his psyche and explores the darkest parts of his own soul that have to do with necrophilia, cannibalism, transgender things. He wears the flesh of women and connects with his mother and eats the flesh of these people in order to connect with them. But he does this in private, holds these midnight masses and decorates his home with “totems” to these dark gods. That’s how the shaman would exist and represent these things for the tribe, and in this mad way he would represent those traumatic things that the tribe was going through. Gein represents for us what our tribe, our culture, is going through. He goes through the darkest forms and represents them as Albert Fish does as well.

Albert Fish goes to these dark areas and then becomes this symbol—the way the saints became symbols for the Catholic religion—that represents those forces and those things that move people. Fish and Gein may move people in ways they don’t want to be moved, because they don’t want to have to think about those things. But all the same they represent some really profound important things in all of us, whether we want to admit it or not. I think it’s part of all of us. It’s a part of me and it’s a part of you, a part of the human being. It’s a part of the culture that we live in. It’s part of what we’ve come from and what we are and of whatever we’re going to be in the future.

SP: The Odditorium is a very important part of your work. It is an extraordinary collection of relics, specimens, documents and oddities. Could you tell me what lies behind it?

JC: The Odditorium goes back to my childhood, it’s been accumulating in my home for years. This particular room is called the shrine room and these objects are shrines connected to my childhood. Certain things are holy and the objects are holy in there. And then objects have magic. I put my faith and belief in them. These magical or holy objects contain stories, much like the details in my paintings. The stories deal with tragic and sometimes funny events in human existence. They are often tragic-funny or tragic-horrible or tragic-sad or tragic-poetic, but each one has different stories and is kind of like a parable. I described earlier the stations of the Cross in the church—you looked at those objects and they would tell a story of specific significant events that represented certain trauma and suffering that caused whatever saint you happened to be addressing to have their significance and power. In this room each one of these objects has a story, and by transforming them into shrines they have the ability to communicate their pain and sadness or some other part of humanity. Each one speaks differently and speaks to different people. Sometimes it’s like a Rorschach test when people come to the Odditorium. Certain objects seem to attach themselves to certain people or a person attaches him or herself to a particular object.

SP: A lot of the objects seem to have to do with pain. Pain also seems to be one of the main topics of your paintings.

JC: And the word “painting” contains the word “pain.”

SP: True, I never thought about that. Could you say something more about some of the objects you have accumulated?

JC: To your left you see little monster models, which a lot of children of my generation put together. They deal with children’s fears. A kid gets worried for instance—I’m not talking about my own fears but trying to give a general sense of a kid that’s afraid of the monster in the closet, the “boogie-man.” One function those monster models had for a child gluing the monster together and painting its colors on the plastic was to enable the child to have some control over it, since he’s the one putting it together and in a sense possessing the monster. He makes it a fetish object that houses the spirit of his fear. They aren’t sculptures but more like fetish objects. You know, in tribes they have masks, African or Mexican or Indian masks that house the spirits of demons that represent certain of the tribe’s fears. When you make it and paint it and perform it in painting it, then you possess it, you make the monster your friend. I do that with painting, and the Odditorium does it in a different way by possessing it. Possessing my worst fears and worst desires and my worst shame, my worst—all those things deep inside. It almost feels like it could destroy you unless you let it out or unless you possess it and put it on the wall. I mean you can look at it and all of a sudden it’s not scary any more, and it’s no longer overwhelming you.

SP: Where does the name “Odditorium” come from?

JC“Odditorium” was first coined by P.T. Barnum, who was one of my mentors you could say. He is from my home state and he was the first one that introduced me to the ... show and I saw my first mummy in his museum. He first coined the term “odditorium” which is taken from “auditorium” but with the emphasis on the odd part of life and I took it from him with loving respect to him. He had a real appreciation for the extremes of life. He never tried to put himself above anything, either. He spoke to the common person about the wonders of the world, and he sort of kept the wonders of the world, the mysteries. Charming.

SP: The Odditorium is constantly growing. What kinds of objects do you select for it and how do you find them?

JC: The most important thing about the Odditorium is that I try to get the objects, but they also try to get in here. I think they desire to be here, because here they can speak. They can tell their story here. People can come and visit them. It’s as if it hurts some tragic spirit that’s out in limbo, it doesn’t have a chance to speak. Here that lost soul has an opportunity to speak to people.

One of my prized objects is a good example, the letter that the cannibal Albert Fish wrote to the mother of his last victim. In the letter he describes in detail the recipe he used for cooking this child, and how he ate her. At the very end of the letter he said, “I did not fuck her though I could have, had I wished. She died a virgin.” And he underlines “virgin.” All through the trial he kept saying, “I didn’t defile her!” In his mind cutting her up and eating her is not defiling her! That’s fascinating, because when you think about it he’s a Catholic, and the whole idea of suffering being holy … Yes, he did cut her up and he did eat her. But in his mind that was not defiling her: it made her into a saint. But what’s the one thing that he would consider awful that he would consider defiling her? “I did not fuck her.” He saved her from sex. The last thing he said is, “She died as a virgin.” So he is pointing out the whole contradiction in the Catholic obsession about sex being so evil while violence is so holy. The fact that he lived and did these horrible things shows this fundamental contradiction in this religion that has dominated the world for so many centuries.

How I obtained the letter is even more fascinating and returns to what I was saying about the objects desiring to come here. When I was painting the portrait of Albert Fish, part of the research was tracking down the letter. When I found out which precinct had the letter—Upstate New York—I filled out all the necessary paperwork to get a Xerox copy for my own reference for the painting. I gave the forms to the woman at the desk. She went to the file cabinet, took out the letter, made a Xerox copy, then handed me the actual letter and put the Xerox copy back in the file! This proves to me that the letter itself desired to come home with me. As if it knew that by staying in that file cabinet, it would not be able to talk. It needed to come here, so that it could talk and be with other souls that had also gone through these torments, so as to feel comfortable here and finally find its home. The easiest way of explaining it to somebody is to say these objects have a life of their own.

There’s another story. When I was in Coney Island somewhen in the mid-eighties, wandering down the board walk, I suddenly heard “’Ay, Joe!” and I thought “Well, it’s got to be 500 guys named Joe.” So I didn’t think too much of it and just kept on walking. Then I heard “’Ay, Joe Coleman!” So I turned around and I see this old guy by this sideshow, next to some banners “’Ay, Joe!” I come over to him and he says: “’Ay, you wanna buy a pickled punk?” I knew that a “pickled punk” is Carney. Carney is slang used by guys who work at a carnival. A pickled punk is Carney slang for a baby, a deformed baby in a jar. So I knew what he was saying. It sounds interesting and he takes me behind this canvas banner and he pulls out little Junior over here. And of course I fell in love with him as soon as I saw him and I paid the man exactly whatever he wanted and I took little Junior home on the subway—of course, we got a lot of stares—and Junior has had an honored place ever since. He is like my alter ego, he’s my son. It’s funny because he represents a more positive or optimistic side of my personality. That deformed little guy there—he’s so happy.

SP: Your work seems always to have had some kind of obsession behind it that functioned as a catalyst or force—an obsession with certain figures, or topics. You seem to have always followed a certain path without deviation.

JC: It’s so much a part of me and it’s my passion and it’s even more than that. It’s what I need to eat and breathe. I still watch “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” the same movie that Sacrilic showed me. When I was a little kid I watched it maybe a thousand times, and I keep on watching it over and over again. So all the stuff you see in my work connects as an adult. It hasn’t changed. Nothing has changed except that my hands have become more and more able to express things. Of course, my mind looks at things differently. But I guess the point I’m trying to make is that there’s some basic part of the person that I was as a child that I cling to and that I think it’s important to hold on to. And these “obsessions” that play over and over again between my hands and gut and psyche set up a certain rapport—you develop a rapport to anything you study with such passion. I’m talking about since childhood. So it’s like playing these strings of serial killers and Jesus and Sacrilic and “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and John Brown and the Civil War and the Old West and Dillinger. It’s like being on the piano and you keep playing and you keep getting better and better with the material because you’ve loved it for so long. I know the material so well and I don’t think, I feel it, and I just start painting. I don’t have to think about it.

Susanne Pfeffer and Joe Coleman at the KW Institut.

List of persons mentioned

Mary Bell (b. 1957) was convicted of strangling a young boy in 1968; later in the same year she was involved in the death of a three-year-old boy.
Carl Panzram (1891–1930): “In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all these things I am not in the least bit sorry.”
Jayne Mansfield (1933–1967) American actress.
Anna-Nicole Smith (1967–2007) American model, actress and celebrity.
John Dillinger (1903–1934) American bank robber.
Jesse James (1847–1882) American outlaw.
Che Guevara (1928–1967) Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary, medic, political figure, and leader of Cuban and internationalist guerillas.
Ed Gein (1906–1984) American serial killer.
Albert Fish (1870–1936) American serial killer and cannibal.
P.T. Barnum (1810–1891) American showman.
John Brown (1800–1859) American abolitionist.
Zacherley From the early 1950's to the early 1960's, he appeared on New York television as a host to low budget horror movies