Interview: Joe Coleman: "My performance art is always a mirror image of my paintings"

Interview: Joe Coleman: "My performance art is always a mirror image of my paintings"

Thu Oct 11th

Ahead of his performance at Le Guess Who?, shamanic painter Joe Coleman gives us a glimpse into his immersive work process.

“Computers are very odd to me,” Brooklyn-based painter and performance artist Joe Coleman remarks over the phone. “For many many years, I kind of avoided them like the plague. I think all this technology gets in the way of real life experiences. But I do think that there’s some value in it. I mean, we have made these things. It’s like the Frankenstein monster; we have to learn to be friends with it or be consumed by it. I’m surprised I’m still here, but I do feel like I’m from another century.” Coleman lets out a slight chuckle, one of wry resignation. “But even back in the 1900’s, I thought I was from another century.”

Doing research for an interview with Joe Coleman does feel a bit like time travel, or at the very least, some kind of hyperreal history lesson. His many, many touchstones all carry an anachronistic sense of weight and wonder. Coleman’s infamous Odditorium, for instance, is a strange exhibition of totems and memorabilia. Among his many other curiosities, Coleman owns medical specimens, a letter handwritten by serial killer Albert Fish and a life-sized wax reliquary containing the remains of St. Agnes.

It’s the kind of sanctuary that could only exist in a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, except the place is as real as it can be. Since the eighties, Coleman has carried many of the smaller paraphernalia he accumulated on his Victorian vest, such as a paw from his deceased cat, a heart-shaped amulet containing a lock of hair from Whitney Ward, his wife and muse, and a piece of fabric from a night gown worn by a Catholic nun who was murdered in the late 1800’s. “They are like medals earned in my battles with this lifetime, but also my talismans and my armor.”

"My performance art is always a mirror image of my paintings. The performance art is an explosion outward – literally, in the early days – and the paintings are an implosion inward."

Outward and inward explosions
Though Coleman has helped build his cult on performance art, curatorship, acting and journalism, he is most famous for his extraordinary paintings. They are like labyrinthine roadmaps across the most miasmatic chapters of human history, magnified in microscopic detail. Leaving no space unchecked, Coleman vividly depicts enshrined reflections on the most ostracized and/or mythical figures of yesteryear; people like Sigmund Freud, Osama Bin Laden, Charles Manson, Ed Gein and Harry Houdini. He has given both himself and Ward the same treatment as well. Because of this meticulous method of operation, one painting often takes several years to finish.

Though some of his paintings can be viewed online, there’s still something mystical and unattainable about them. Because again, Coleman puts a preposterous amount of detail into his work, which makes it impossible to achieve full immersion, unless you witness it in the same room. Since his pieces are pretty much scattered all over the world – with celebrities such as Iggy Pop, Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio among owners – the opportunity to see an original Joe Coleman in the flesh is pretty scarce. Which is a shame, because Coleman’s paintings can be a proxy for so many other art forms and formats, namely comic books, pop art, novels, manuscripts, data sheets or yeah, even psych evaluations. “Or like an archeological dig,” Coleman adds. “A dig inside of me and inside of a subject. The minutiae, the brushes that I use are tools that an archeologist might want to use to uncover something. I try to find the information between the strokes of the brush. I keep looking further and further."

Fortunately, at this year’s Le Guess Who? Festival, Coleman has found a way to crash course through the heart of his work. He will present a performance art piece that frames his paintings in a faithful way that won’t require him to, well, bring an actual frame. “Well, obviously, I don’t do the old performances anymore, where I explode myself,” Coleman explains, referring to his early forays as a firebrand performance artist. “Right now, I do a spoken word performance as my Preacher character, who is kind of a possessed character. There will be images of my paintings projected onto my body. In a film made I travel through my paintings on the animation stand, with intense slow zooms and pans across the surface of the painting, like a journey. My performance art is always a mirror image of my paintings. The performance art is an explosion outward – literally, in the early days – and the paintings are an implosion inward.  When the paintings pour out of me, it’s more like a search inside of me, inside the subjects I paint.”

Even during his yonder days of strapping explosives to himself and biting off the heads of vermin, it wasn’t to boldly err against the normative. “But I did want to show my raw pain, because I was in so much turmoil back then. I wanted my emotions to become a public spectacle, like a sideshow freak; the base part of what humanity represents, which connected very much to my Catholicism. Delving into hell, and trying to go back, you know, it was my own personal hell that I was trying to confront and share with an audience. It was kind of a mad idea, but it’s something I was compelled to do at the time."

“It’s true that information is a lot easier to access these days. But a lot of the information online can often be incorrect. So you need to dig a lot deeper.”

Swift Runner And The Colonialist Wendigo Effect

The Story of Swift Runner
One square inch at a time, Coleman strips down our facsimiles of gods, demons and prophets to something genuinely human and corporeal. And by doing so, he turns the skeleton key of his own inner truth and catharsis. One of his most recent subjects is Swift Runner, an indigenous North American Cree Indian who was executed for the murder and cannibalization of 9 members of his family. Coleman starts telling the story: “In the mid-1800s, when the white man had begun to colonize North America the indigenous tribe of Cree were hunters who used the buffalo for everything; not just for food, but for clothing and shelter, the hoofs and horns for tools. They used every part of the buffalo. Then the white man brought these guns, which at first were gifts for hunting, but they also brought the mass destruction of the buffalo. They even shot them with cannons. General William Tecumseh Sherman who is most famous for his “scorched-earth” tactics in the Civil War, brought that same military philosophy to subjugate all the native peoples of the plains during the so-called “Indian Wars”. His plan was to eradicate the buffalo thereby eradicating the native peoples. It’s the kind of ethnic cleansing that’s still scary today.”

“At that time they had wiped out almost all of the buffalo, so the Cree were starving. Swift Runner couldn’t find anything to feed his family with, so he hired himself out to the white man as a guide. And then they turned him on to whiskey (fire-water), and he would come home with nothing. He couldn’t hunt and now he would spend all of the money he made as a guide on whiskey. In desperation he went into the wilderness with his family, during a particularly bad Winter when all the Cree were starving, and he called for a spirit guide. The spirit guide that came to him was the Wendigo, which is a cannibal spirit. As the rest of his family was out hunting for any kind of food, Swift Runner just stayed at the camp brooding with thoughts of the Wendigo. They left him in charge of the baby. When the family was away, he became possessed by the Wendigo, killed and ate the baby. And then he went out to hunt the rest of his family.”

“After the end of the Winter, with the thaw of the Spring, he came out of the wilderness, to Fort Saskatchewan looking for whiskey. The guards at looked suspiciously at Swift Runner who had become quite portly, while all the rest of the Cree were starving to death. So they interrogated him, using whiskey as well to loosen his tongue. But what they gave him was a mixture of tobacco, whiskey, and turpentine called Muss-kee-wah-bwee. They eventually got him to talk and he brought them to the camp where they found the remains of his family with the evidence that they had been cooked and eaten. A jury of six white men tried him and he was hung at Fort Saskatchewan. At the end of his days, he became friends with a white minister, who thought he could make a Christian out of this so-called ‘heathen’. The last religious act Swift Runner committed was to receive holy communion before they hung him, which ironically is a symbolic act of cannibalism. He apologized for his crimes and said that he was less than a man. Though hung among jeers and curses from the onlookers, he died with a sad stoic nobility”

“Within Swift Runner’s story, there’s nothing in any way heroic or cathartic like Cochise or Geronimo. It’s just the sad devastation and horror that period caused.”

Pilgrimage
Once compelled to paint a particular subject, Coleman embarks on a lengthy process of correspondence, research, and excursions before even the first brushstroke hits the surface of the painting. “It’s done in the same fashion as the way other people would write a biography of someone,” Coleman clarifies. “I try to look to see if there was anyone that knew the person who is still alive. If that was the case, I would try to reach out to them and talk to them. If that’s impossible, I look up court transcripts or microfilm in libraries and things like that. But I also go to locations where events in the person’s life may have occurred. I still do that with the research; it’s so much a part of the process as well. Certain things like that have not changed. “It’s true that information is a lot easier to access these days. But a lot of the information online can often be incorrect. So you need to dig a lot deeper.”

In the case of Swift Runner, Coleman visited the campsite where he killed his family, the remnants of Fort Saskatchewan and a museum that stored Swift Runner’s breastplate. “It was not on display in the museum itself. But I found out about it, and befriended the curator of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary who allowed me to hold the breastplate as well as a lot of rifles from that period (that would be like the one he would have owned) and uniforms of the guards at Fort Saskatchewan. I got first-hand knowledge of all that stuff. The fact that I got to hold the breastplate in my hands was important not only for the accuracy of the painting, but also to connect spiritually with the subject.” That physicality carries over in the frame of the paintings: it serves as a containment field for Coleman’s sprawling imagery and scriptures. It’s as if the frame is crafted to keep all of it from spilling out like some sort of blight.

“Yeah, the frame is an extension of the narrative,” Coleman elaborates. “It often contains fetish objects related to the central figure of the narrative. In the case of Indian Larry’s Wild Ride, the frame was made of motorcycle parts welded together from the motorcycle parts of bikes he never got to finish. The thing weighs a ton, but it’s a pretty intense frame. And within that, I gathered up a couple of hundred Indian head pennies, and mounted them in the part of the frame closest to the painted image. If you look online, hopefully, you can find an image where you can see the actual frame, not just the painted image. And you’ll get an idea of what they’re like. Swift Runner’s frame is similar. It contains period artifacts including a war club, battle ax, arrowheads and bullets.”

Indian Larry's Wild Ride

“The worst of humanity is in us all”
True to the rich detail of his works, Coleman is immersed more in the intricate moral complexities his subjects present. Though he was raised as a Catholic, he identified Christianity's inherent contradictions at a very young age. The way it preaches absolute divinity under a single, supposedly benevolent God seemed fraught with hypocrisy in the culture Coleman grew up in. But the image of the brutally tortured man on a cross captured his imagination; equating the trauma of Christ’s violent death to his own pain. And his performance art initially became a vessel for that, more so than a display of superficial shock value.

“In Catholicism, the saints all suffer some kind of great atrocity to make them saints. They’re martyrs. There’s also the yin and the yang, the opposite, the shadow self. Like for example, what about the Roman soldier who nailed Christ to the cross? These characters who often fall into the cracks of untold history make up the complete story of that historical event. Their story is remarkable too, and those tragic lives have changed history.” Instead of seeking repulsion or alienation, Coleman’s work – no matter how macabre the imagery can be – is driven by a deep empathy, curiosity and understanding of what makes us humans tick.

“It’s all a part of our human experience, a part we would rather deny even exists; but instead should be confronted and studied. When somebody has cancer, they want to talk about it, while other people shy away. They don’t want to hear about it. It needs to be brought out. You need to listen, hear, learn and understand. You don’t learn anything from being judgmental and dismissive, only from listening without judgment. I’m not even asking for forgiveness, I’m just asking you to listen.

“If you can spare some empathy for that darker part of humanity, – even the worst of humanity –, the world would be a better place.”

With so many impressions and revelations in hindsight, even now, Joe Coleman opts to reflect forward: “The worst of humanity is in us all. And the best of humanity is in people you think are beyond hope. If the best is beyond their hope, then we are all beyond hope.”

Joe Coleman will perform at Le Guess Who? 2018 together with a.o. Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lydia Lunch's Big Sexy Noise, Future Feminism, The Breeders, Colin Stetson, Joe Cardamone, The Breeders, FACS, Psyhic Ills, Crack Cloud, and many more.

Interview by Jasper Willems.