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VOGUE – Preview article about of Miami Art Basel featuring Joe’s painting “Doorway to Whitney”.
Translation by Rebecca Lieb:
Guardian of Evil
BY PETER JUDGE PHOTOS: TODD SELBY
How a morbid couple in New York’s art underground lead their lives.
The Coney Island Mermaid Parade at New York’s popular beach is a bit like carnival, only in summer. Everyone goes as mermaids or sea monsters. The most disturbing mermaid, who at the same time was the most impressive sea monster, was this year – as in almost all previous years – a diva-like, blond woman. Squid tentacles grew from her breasts. Her left arm was in a big lobster claw. In the right she held a baby doll with two heads, one with fangs. The photographers could not get enough of her. Because of them, the parade has not moved ahead. She waved Siamese baby doll to a man in the judging stand. The man doffed his sun hat and waved back. He looked very relaxed, very happy at that moment. And with good reason.
While she prepared her appearance here (working with the costume designer of the shock rock band GWAR), he had finally finished her portrait. Perhaps the largest, most detailed and most complex that has ever a man has even done of his wife. Four years! For four years he has, virtually every day, perched for eight hours in a tiny room in Brooklyn before this canvas, a thick magnifying glasses before his eyes, a brush with not much more than a single hair in his hand. In between, at lunchtime, he went to the gym for an hour to realign, then he continued to paint. He painted – nearly life-size – his wife, and the same time he painted – in small miniatures – her family, her friends, her obsessions and her demons.
He painted, only, for example, the singer Tom Jones, to whom women threw panties on the stage. She realized at age 13 why women do such a thing. And he painted how she was almost beaten to death at 17 by her first boyfriend. He painted her sister, who survived a brain tumor, and he painted the brain tumor that their mother did not survive. And Stewie, the brash kid from the animated series Family Guy. And Thai sex dolls. And, and, and. He painted more astonishing, grotesque, horrible and fun details on this canvas than did Hieronymus Bosch in his famous Garden of Earthly Delights. And when he was done, he signed it with squiggly writing: “Joe Coleman 2011-2015”. The name of the woman, in whose memories, desires and fears he had crawled around so deeply that he could look out from the inside, is everywhere anyway in the image. It reads Whitney Ward. But what Whitney Ward does professionally, but there are a lot of terms. You light all at the foot of the image as neon signs in a red light district: therapist, courtesan, dominatrix … With her high heels she crushes little creeping things, and an inscription teaches that this is in no way is meant only symbolically.
This is actually the story of a great love. But there is a whole lot of grief in it too, atrocities, also electric chairs and glasses containing inlaid monsters. Actually it is about the dark, dazzling world of Joe and Whitney, the most glamorous couple of what is left of New York’s underground. But so it must be even also be about what is real for both of people. The pleasure and life does not have value without pain.
“Painting” comes from “pain,” says Joe, and he do not mean just the painstaking way he paints, but also what. He usually takes up to a year to complete a depiction of a serial killer; usually he describes their life stories and crimes of passion in his paintings, which are equal parts altarpieces, comics and tabloids. It’s for this Joe Coleman got his reputation, interest from art collectors and curators, as well as a reputation in macabre subcultures. These worlds are not at all as far apart as both sides may sometimes think. The philosopher Edmund Burke was certain in the 18th century that the choice between several hours of opera performance and a public execution most people before would chose the latter. Burke was certain that terror – not “the sublime.” Is the more central aesthetic category museums today.
Anyone to whom the door to Joe and Whitney’s apartment in Brooklyn is opened realizes they’re in a museum. Joe calls it his Odditorium, “Because of the many oddities, oddities he has accumulated. If Joe and Whitney weren’t so welcoming, with friendly words and a coffee mug full of white wine, all wax figures that fill the living room seem to be compiled from all the cabinets of horrors of the past decades. Joe wears a three-piece suit and the curled moustache of a 19th century a carnival show director.
She stands there, as if at any time a saloon brawl could break out over her that only she could pacify. Between them there’s OJ Simpson and Brigham Young, the highly respected leader of the Mormons, in whose term however not only the establishment of Salt Lake City falls but also the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, in which his people, disguised as Indians, slaughtered 120 passing settlers. Adjacent, diabolically illuminated from below, a grinning President Nixon. Why Nixon? “Just to fuck with them.”
You couldn’t say that Joe is an apolitical artist, and obviously he’s got something against Nixon. He also holds a vial with Nixon’s blood, a nurse gave it to Joe as a gift for his fiftieth birthday. The ampule is now preserved alongside Indian shrunken heads and the severed penis from Jörg Buttgereit’s film, “Necromancer 2.” (A gift from director; Coleman was the first to bring the banned German director’s horror film in to a US movie theater.) In essence, the collection but famous serial killer Richard Speck or Ed Gein or Charles Manson turns around so or John Wayne Gacy. With some Joe’s Contact.Manson sent a lock of hair. After Joe’s mother died, Gacy, the killer clown from Chicago wrote a love letter of condolence. “I hope she did not have to suffer.”
That really goes through your head, says Joe, when a guy with 33 boys on his conscience writes such a thing. “But I still think he meant it sincerely.” Joe also owns a letter written by the sadist and cannibal Albert Fish, a model (among others) for the popular villian Hannibal Lecter, who wrote to the mother of his last victim in November 1934. We learn in how the girls tasted and that it – this obviously meant calm her – died a virgin. “Virgin” is underlined.
It is the most horrible piece of paper that you could only ever read. It is the Magna Carta of criminal history, says Joe Coleman. The letter hangs as the most valuable pieces of his collection, finely framed and behind glass on the wall. Can one sit anything on the sofa, holding hands, until the guest has the feeling that he saw a little theater-like variant of Philemon and Baucis on the bench in front of her hut? Joe Coleman and Whitney Ward can.
The happiest couple of ancient mythology was blessed because, we read in Ovid even doubtful occurring gods granted his hospitality. The happiest couple in New York fetish considers it just in principle. After all, who are for the gods in the fledgling mythology of America, if not all of these outlaws whose cruel transgressions were and again sung again in movies, songs, books, and are, to hilarious horror of innocent citizens. Why so many people fascinated?
Complex psychological question, writes the cultural scientist Harold Schechter of the City University of New York in his classic work The Serial Killer Files. Perhaps, to identify themselves for the duration of a book or a film with those who those dark, unregulated impulses live, as civility suppresses the rest of us. But perhaps too, in order to celebrate their own palpitating life. It is always yes just to survive if the American dream of the good life. The American dream of the friendly, waving neighbor turns into the nightmare that he’s actually a psychopath who disappears to stir the acid barrels in his garage. And from this perspective, romance is also possible.
The sentence he inscribed around Whitney? “I’ve got a new tumor in a jar; I think you’d like it. ” Whitney says that then, it must have been 1997, she was working as a photographer and filmmaker. “I had just directed a video for the band Nashville Pussy, when Joe came in with an entourage of motorcycle rockers.”
Joe says, “Their leader came to one of my shows one day because he made a jacket from rats that he wanted to show me, a rat fur jacket. We become friends. ”
Whitney says: ” He came anyway in and told that a new documentary was being made about him. And his new book had just come out. And I was going, Great, great. ”
Joe:” I just could not get her attention. Then I mentioned the tumors. That worked.”
Whitney:” After all the friendly conversation I thought: Wow, that’s an invitation.”
Joe:” The right line only has to work once. ”
Whitney:” Then you have my phone number on a invitation to a Hustler -party listed. The picture showed women being pushed into a meat grinder. “Whitney know with whom she would have to share Joe’s sensitivity and empathy.
Joe Coleman was born on 11/22/55 in Norwalk, Connecticut, and grew up at Ward Street 99. He’s more prone to believe in the fateful power of these kind of double numbers than God. But he was raised a Catholic, when he painted a man for the first time, he had nails hammered though his hand to a cross. A weakeness for splatter was thus awakened, for which the priest was to blame. In the confessional he confessed serial killings, which he devised himself for fun. (In the beautiful documentary “Rest in Pieces,” the rights of which were turned over Joe many years ago, he told this story to his enthusiastic supporter, Jim Jarmusch. The two sit in a church and smoke cigarettes, as if they were schoolboys who want to watch make trouble.)
“There’s so many saints whose eyes were pulled out and breasts cut off, they were beheaded, beaten, and burnt,” says Coleman. “But what’s up with the one who [commit these atrocities] tear out eyes, torture, wheels and heads, what happens to their lives and their souls?”
Joe Coleman has always been held in the honorable tradition of the German crimes of German crimes of passion painters George Grosz and Otto Dix. But it could be that it is quite different, a much more Catholic echo. It could be that in the long, agonizing times this screwed-up life way a kind of penance for Joe.
It’s not that he enjoys murder. But it is so that he’s suffered a loss asserted when a city like New York, known for its dark side, dangerousness and dirt has been sanitized over the past 20 years from ruthless violence to one of the safest and most tourist-friendly cities in the USA.
Joe came to the city when he was 17 and was a taxi driver, at the time when the film “Taxi Driver” was released. He saw what Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle saw. Unlike them, Coleman was pleased with the heroin and the depravity of the red-light district around Times Square. “A decent city needs this,” says Joe. “Hamburg is like that, too.”
At that time New York no had no musical theater shows that shorts-wearing tourists from Texas were paying several hundred dollars for a tick to. There were still freak shows. Patrons smelled of urine and aome to the tables drunk, their days faded away. At that time, with the word geek didn’t refer to internet billionaires, but people who bit animals’ heads off on stage.
Joe Coleman decided to become the first geek of performance art. Six days after his mother died, he had a funeral in a theater in Boston. First, for half an hour, porn films from the ’50s were projected on on a paper curtain (because he was the product of a sexual act in the ’50s.) Then he descended on a rope hanging from the ceiling through the paper web, while firecrackers tied around his body exploded over the stunned crowd. Then his first wife, Nancy, put out the fire with blood – pig’s blood from a butcher’s shop – and cut him free from the rope with scissors. (Because it is the first woman that separates a man permanently from the mother’s umbilical cord.). Then he bit the heads off two mice, which he called Mommy and Daddy. The Daddy he spat into the crowd, which by Mommy he swallowed. (because he wanted to take in his mother.)
The art historian Cynthia Carr devoted then an entire chapter of her book about the art of performance this wild, bearded man who wanted to have otherwise nothing to do with the actual performance art scene of the time, the only exception : the bloody Viennese Action movement.
The police were very interested in the performance, who slapped him with the charge “possession of an infernal object,” a charge unheard of since the 1820s. Even if Joe today is mainly limited to the act of painting, which is stressful enough, you can sometimes see him on a stage. This spring, for example, he appeared at the Slipper Room, a small plush theater on the first floor of an apartment building on the Lower East Side. On the stage, which is higher for lack of space than it is wide, there are usually dancing naked women with colorful pompoms on their nipples (“Burlesque”). Joe’s crony Jonathan Shaw read from his new novel. Shaw was one of the celebrity tattoo artists from Los Angeles before he defected as a novelist to Rio. What he read was the insults hurled at a German sex tourists by a Brazilian drug prostitute. Here Shaw was supported by a band that accompanied his rhythmic sermon with drums, guitar and bass. Lydia Lunch, the Mother Courage of the New York punk, came back again from exile in Barcelona and barked a few rough verses. Joe led like a ringmaster, in top hat and tails for the evening. And at the end he performed with Billy Leroy skits from the vaudeville stage of the twenties.
Billy Leroy? A man who looks like the actor Sky du Mont and on the Bowery operates one of the last junk shop, a so-called New York original. Just like old times. Earlier, it was Lydia Lunch. And Coleman himself. “This is family,” said Whitney, who sent out the invitations with something and therefore worries that everyone is enjoying themselves. “The family is important.”
Whitney and Joe’s family is a New York that practically longer exists. Whitney and Joe call these people their children. There are also the two pickled punks in jars, to whom they devote their parental feelings. It wasn’t necessarily likely that two such people would come together. Joe’s first wife had problems with the spirits in the Odditorium and wanted to get rid of some of the shrunken heads and mummies. Joe and they separated when Whitney came into play. Joe tells in his image of his boundless emotion when he sees, for example, how Whitney can thank a pair of broken flip-flops for years of service to her feet. Because if you already believe in animism, the doctrine of the soulfulness of the things we must can’t stop at rubber slippers.
Whitney in turn knew she would marry Joe since she was two years old. In the picture he has painted of her, appeared on the right side on a very decent German home. Sshe lived as an infant when her father was stationed with the Army in Stuttgart. And there she received a Santa Claus made of fabric, which she called “the cutest thing in the world.” She has the doll today. His resemblance to Whitney’s Santa Claus is striking, right down to the tip of the beard. There had to be someone for her, someone highly talented and who shares her taste for the bizarre. And who’s at ease with her profession. That’s not necessarily easy. Not even for themselves.
Whitney says she found the early nineties that she liked fetish clothing, and she can be quite amusing exceedingly polite when describing gong to fetish parties in Berlin, often with quite wealthy clients from the Upper East Side. But then there are also disturbing clients like the one who wanted her to trample worms. And it wasn’t just worms. A Vietnam veteran with “crush fetish” fantasies also brought goldfish, and finally white mice. Joe writes in his image, “Whitney took in the pain of this tormented soul. Although it pained her, she trampled the worms and the goldfish. But she refused to trample the mice. She never saw the client again. “The goldfish is currently in the portrait, stabbed in the lower center of the picture by her 12 centimeter heel.
It’s amazing that one of all the atrocities that Joe Coleman has depicted in his monumental work, this is perhaps the most shocking detail. A dead goldfish. Perhaps it is so because we know deep Whitney’s passion for animals actually is. And to get there she crossed a personal pain threshold. There is a dark spot in bright colors, a fall from grace. No idea if marriage counselors would the generally recommend such a violent act of empathy.
“It’s the most intense portrait I’ve ever painted,” says Joe. For a while it stood still in the small studio overlooking Charles Manson, Richard Speck, and the grinning Nixon. Then, it was handed over to art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who is looking for a new home for it.
“No separation anxiety,” says Joe. “Those things have to leave the house, like children, and lead their own lives.” On the easel is now basically a blank space waiting for the sad life history of some insane killer. America produces a new one daily. But even Joe Coleman hasn’t yet started on a new project of painterly emplathy. First especially good news must be processed. That is, to celebrate his portrait of Whitney this December at Art Basel Miami Beach at its public premiere. In a special exhibition, the dealers Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian; a more spectacular stage doesn’t exist in the US art market.
Or, almost more important: that Whitney once again stands at the Coney Iceland Mermaid Parade’s winners’ podium. Second place in the category “Best Sea Creature.” Although Joe believes Whitney deserves first place.
FINANCIAL TIMES – Article about the “Unrealism” show in Miami featuring Joe’s painting.
Article in French about Joe Coleman’s contribution to the Halle Saint Pierre show Hey!
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