Tenebrae for Gesualdo, 2004
acrylic on panel
36 x 28 in. (91.4 x 71.1 cm)
As You Look into the Eye of the Cyclops, So the Eye of the Cyclops Looks into You, 2003
acrylic on masonite, mixed media console, audio soundtrack, mounted on smoking jacket worn in film
66 x 37.5 x 21 in. (167.6 x 95.3 x 53.3 cm.) (in console), 30 x 30 in. (76.2 x 76.2 cm.) (painting only).
Portrait of Charles Manson, 1988
acrylic on panel
approx. 47 x 42 in. (119.4 x 106.7 cm.)
Born 1955, Norwalk, Connecticut.
Joe Coleman occupies a contested but important position within Outsider Art. His underground celebrity persona and experience as a comic illustrator has caused his repeated expulsion from this category by its stricter gatekeepers, who would prefer to admit only those living in complete isolation from society. Yet through his unique practice of painting portraits with thousands of microscopic, single-hair brushstrokes, Coleman has demonstrated that what makes a true Outsider Artist is not residence in an asylum cell, but rather an oeuvre grounded radically outside the limits of art history or contemporary stylistic concerns.
Born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1955, Coleman’s maternal grandfather was a professional prizefighter, a fact that helped shape the artist’s future interest in personae on the fringes of American culture. He began to draw as a child, and quite early exhibited a penchant for violence and macabre subject matter. The artist has cited his upbringing in the Catholic Church—specifically the more violent depictions of the Crucifixion—as a central inspiration to his inquiry into violence and the darker aspects of humanity. Coleman’s Catholic upbringing also introduced him to the narrative tradition of Saints’ lives, a genre he has adopted to suit his own exploration of the way serial killers and fallen celebrities have come to be venerated as godlike in American culture.
Coleman typically spends several months to several years on one painting. He begins at the periphery of each composition, working toward the center with slow deliberation, through miniscule brushstrokes that shape images as well as words. His hagiography of anti-saints is the collage-narrative of comic-book frames and bubbles—he sees himself primarily as a visual storyteller. His major portraits include Che Guevera, Dillinger, John Brown, Anna Nicole Smith, Henry Darger, Charles Manson, Timothey McVeigh, and many others. By transforming these unlikely figures into icons in a language that invites veneration, Coleman is showing us our own pantheon of gods and saints.
Coleman’s creativity has extended to isolated performance events that explore his inquiry into the dark side of the psyche through the stage persona of a freak-show carny. He has earned a dedicated celebrity following. Detractors have used this aspect of his work to question the significance of his accomplishments as a painter in vain. Coleman continues to be one of the most prolific Outsider Artists of our time.
- Jenifer P. Borum
2019, We Shall Make America Wonder, Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York
2013, Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture Part II, Halle Saint Pierre, Paris
2013, Raw Vision: 25 Years of Art Brut, Halle Saint Pierre, Paris
2007, Joe Coleman: 14 Paintings, Palais de Tokyo, Paris
2007, Joe Coleman: Internal Digging, KW Institute, Berlin
2004, A Kansas Art Sampler, The Spencer Art Museum, Lawrence
2002, The Circus in Twentieth Century American Art, The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford
1998, The End Is Near!: Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium and Utopia, American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
Halle Saint Pierre, Paris
American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
Spencer Art Museum, Lawrence
Lieb, Rebecca, "Joe Coleman: From the Sideshow to the Big Top," Raw Vision, #64, Fall 2008.
Manley, Roger and Howard Finster, The End Is Near!: Visions of Apocalypse, Millenium and Utopia, Dilettante Press, Los Angeles, 1998.
Coleman, Joe, The Man of Sorrows, Distributed Art Publishers, New York, 1998.
Jarmusch, Jim, Harold Schechter and John Yau, Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman, Green Candy Press, San Francisco, 1998.
Coleman, Joe, Cosmic Retribution: The Infernal Art of Joe Coleman, Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, 1993.