R. CRUMB HAS DESCRIBED JOE COLEMAN'S WORK as having “the edge of someone engaged in an urgent effort to preserve their sanity,” and Coleman, a cult hero lionized for his mastery of the Grand Guignol, does not disagree. What threatened his sanity? A violent, abusive father, a mother with boundary problems and a heavy dose of Catholicism. Add to that the fact that Coleman grew up across the street from a cemetery, a few miles away from the P.T. Barnum Museum, and you've got a kid with a bad case of the creeps. Fortunately for Coleman, he discovered he could conquer his demons by transferring them to canvas.

“For me, painting is a healing activity that helps me work through things. Following my father's death in 1987, for instance, and my mother's death in 1989, I did a painting called Mommy/Daddy that was like an exorcism. After I did that painting, my mother and father ceased to be as frightening and overwhelming as they'd always been.”

Coleman's friend, the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, believes “Coleman's paintings illustrate his own beautiful and often terrifying attempts to organize the chaos that is both around him and inside him.” Fifteen of these paintings, most of which are on loan from private collections, go on view tomorrow at the Ernie Wolfe Gallery, in an exhibition organized by dealer James Corcoran. Also on view is “The Odditorium,” a selection of items from Coleman's collection of incredibly weird stuff. Among his holdings: a taxidermied two-bodied calf, a plaster cast of a thalidomide victim's arm, a shrunken head, a jar of tumors and a pickled cyclops pig.

“I've always been fascinated by freakish things,” says the 44-year-old artist, speaking by phone from his studio in Brooklyn. “Freaks are physical embodiments of internal torment, and I find great power in that. Exhibitions of freaks of nature are considered politically incorrect these days, of course, but the carny-sideshow aesthetic hasn't disappeared — it's on television now, on programs like The Jerry Springer Show.”

A devotee of the vintage freak style, Coleman is also fascinated by madness, crime and all manner of social transgression. He's corresponded with mass murderers John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson (who sent Coleman a lock of his hair), and done portraits of both of them. He's also made paintings of legendary nut cases Ed Gein, Carl Panzram and Albert Fish, and has developed a distinctive approach to portraiture. Coleman's subjects are usually male misanthropes with a gleam of madness in the eye, and they stare blankly back at the viewer, surrounded by details of their lives, which are presented in vignettes that circle them like constellations. Coleman fleshes out his images with undulating lines and blocks of text, which are used as a compositional device and imbue the paintings with an obsessive density evocative of Outsider art. The sacred and profane collide violently in Coleman's tour through the sordid underbelly of American culture, and his work would be decidedly grim but for the fact that he tempers his tragic tales with a healthy dollop of gallows humor.

COLEMAN WAS BORN IN NORWALK, CONNECTICUT, in 1955, the third in a family of four children. By the age of 8 he was turning out accomplished drawings of bleeding saints, and at the age of 12 he set fire to his schoolyard. The key books of his childhood were a volume on Hieronymus Bosch, and the Bible, both of which made a big impression on him.

“I got a lot out of Catholicism. It's largely based on lies, but it provided me with raw materials that helped me arrive at answers about life,” says Coleman, who found that the grisly iconography of Catholicism dovetailed nicely with his burgeoning interest in subversive art. As his own visual sensibility emerged, he studied work by Ivan Albright, Otto Dix, Pieter Brueghel, Robert Crumb and S. Clay Wilson.

In 1974 Coleman moved to Manhattan and joined the punk band the Steel Tips, then the following year he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts, where he spent two and a half years. “I had a terrible time there,” recalls Coleman, who supported himself as a cab driver while in school. “The faculty was totally against what I was doing, so I finally quit. Well, actually, I was kicked out,” he confesses with a laugh. “The review committee said I was a fascist schizophrenic who portrayed people as animals and degraded the human form.”

The review committee certainly didn't appreciate the performance piece Coleman had been doing since the mid '70s. “I'd strap a cookie sheet to my chest, rig myself with explosives, then burst into people's homes and set them off,” Coleman recalls. “I did that piece several times throughout the '80s, and the last time I did it was in 1989, as a sort of funeral ritual for my parents.”

Coleman's capacity for extremes stretched even further in 1995, when he performed an autopsy in a Budapest morgue. “The medical examiner there is a fan of my work, and he arranged for me to be allowed to do that,” says Coleman of the experience, which was captured on film in R.I.P.: Rest in Pieces, a documentary on Coleman by filmmaker Robert Pejo. “It was frightening, but it was also exciting, because there was so much to learn. Aside from the obvious thing of anatomy, you learn a lot about yourself, and I learned what I was able to face.”

Pejo's footage of Coleman blithely cutting into a woman's chest cavity leads the viewer to realize that, although flesh is sacred for most of us, for Coleman it is not. Asked what is sacred for him, he replies, “The bonds I make with people are sacred.”

Coleman's relationship with his work also seems to have an element of the sacred, and the mechanics of this process are mysterious to him. “When I begin a painting, I have no idea what the final image will be,” he says. “I just start painting in increments of a single inch — it's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, and after I complete the painting I mount it onto wood covered with fabric that relates to the subject. For Mommy/Daddy, for instance, I used a fragment of a Marine Corps shirt my father had worn at Iwo Jima, and part of one of my mother's dresses.”

Coleman is currently working on a painting exploring the history of explosives titled The Big Bang Theory, but he says he has no interest in blowing anything up, and that his frame of mind is markedly better than it used to be. Engaged to be married next year to Whitney Ward, he's financially solvent, free of the drug problems that plagued him throughout the '80s, and no longer in the grip of some of the ghosts that haunted him for decades. For proof, one need look no further than his newest painting, The Book of Revelations.

“I'm depicted as God in the painting, and I'm taking my friends with me to the kingdom of heaven,” he explains. “Whitney sits next to me holding the scales of justice, and we're riding on the head of the Beast, who's like a lawn mower chopping up our enemies. This is one of the happiest paintings I've ever done, and I think it's obvious that my state of mind has changed fairly dramatically.”


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