Joe Coleman - Internal Digging
May 27- August 12 at KW Institute For Contemporary Art.
Reviewed by Simon Devenport WM Berlin
Joe Coleman was born in 1955, Norwalk, Connecticut (U.S.A). During the late 1970's the painter/performance artist (along with The Dead Boys and of-course The Ramones) was at the core of the New York, CBGB's Punk-rock scene. As front-man of the band Steeltips. His Brooklyn apartment has also been the home to his "Odditorium". A growing collection of documents, relics, oddities and specimen jars he started gathering over thirty years ago. He often rearranges his Odditorium as means to inspire artistic endeavour and to research the vast sources of reference it offers. The 'Odditorium' makes a debut appearance (as a substantial feature) at the KW Institute For Contempory Art. Internal Digging is also displaying all of Joe Coleman's work, which has never happened in Europe before this exhibition.
The exhibition occupied four floors of the building, I started my adventure in the "Odditorium" at ground level and followed my ears as the country music increased in volume. On entrance I was met by a scene that looked like a travelling fair over- ran by blood thirsty zombies, overlooked by Death himself (a suspended Grim Reaper). A set of steps led me down to the large dimly lit room featuring three wagons surrounded by waxwork models that had been fashioned into life-sized murder scenes. All of these pieces depict actual historic murders, many are based on the actions of famous serial-killers. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is also exposed, again life-sized and placed between two of the wagons. Surrounded by other nostalgic blood-shed. The atmosphere of the place was eery to say the least and being left alone amid all the towering shadows that loomed on each wall, became quite an unnerving
experience. As I reminisced about past days-out to London's waxwork establishments (The Chamber of Horrors springs to mind), I notice a claret clad Satan dwelling under a wagon looking extremely sinister, so I decided to take a closer look at the features inside the wagons. The cabinets and shelves displayed freak-show exhibits, letters that were directly linked to murders, skeletons and a other astonishing objects. A signed portrait of the late Jayne Mansfield to her "favourite artist"? (Joe was 12 years old the year she died), stands out on the wall of wagon A. "Last of the geeks" he says what she went through in life and her fatal death, made her a proper "American Venus". However for me the most interesting and unique piece of the Odditorium had to be "Man in
coffin with projected Devil image wax figure". A self explanatory titled creation consisting of an up-rite coffin containing a "Loved One" that turns into the Devil. The projected moving face carries a supernatural type effect and gives the spooky looking figure a really menacing characteristic, as he lectures us about "me the Devil".
All that I had seen in this first section seemed to be suitable preparation for the next three floors awaiting me.
The next three rooms mainly focused on Colemans paintings. All of which oozed information and his detailed cartoon style, he possessed a technique that gave all his work a distinctive glow. The way he approached each composition was somewhat unorthodox "when I start painting I have no idea how the whole image is going to be. But that's what is exiting tome I'm not predicting the composition. It is a digging process" Joe Coleman in R.I.P., Rest in Pieces, A Portrait of Joe Coleman, a film by Robert Pejo, 1997. His piece featuring 1970's child Murderer Mary Bell () in the slightly brighter second room, proved to quite disturbing. He also focused on characters he associated with his own childhood.
On arrival into the well-lit next room I notice a shift of subject matter, politics and religion were his latest topics of discussion. His "O.J Simpson Wax Figure" looked as life-like as his social views are down to earth. He included a great deal of facts and figures in these paintings, sharing his own ideas and experiences. He observs his surroundings using interesting fairy-talesque layouts. The final room invited me to put on headphones so I could hear the sound-tracks, whilst I studied the work. T.v monitors played Black and white pornography, B-movie, Colemans performances and wedding clips on a video loop. In here his paintings featured people that influence him and his work, most of them being musicians.
The overall motive that drives Joe Coleman to keep creating these works of art, would be his quest to exercise the suffering world. His exhibits certainly are not for the faint-hearted, though I highly recommend seeing his work in the flesh. But be prepared to pay attention to detail, to achieve the full effect of those masterpieces.
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Simon Devenport was a youth-leader in his native city
Nottingham, England. Now he is a freelance writer living in Berlin.