A Look Inside an Infernal Machine
An Interview with Joe Coleman

Chad Hensley

Joe Coleman is the quintessential Outsider artist for the end of this century. His paintings are grotesquely detailed scenes rendered in vivid acrylics, often leaving a disturbing impression.His work is filled with unfolding apocalypses, freak show attractions, and portraits of tragic personalities ranging from Jane Mansfield to Charles Manson.

    He is a self-styled carnival Geek, blowing himself up with explosives after biting the heads of mice during his courtship with performance art under the moniker of Professor Momboozo. He has even tried his hand at rock stardom with a few friends, recording a 7 inch called JE+ ILL and Joe Coleman released by Sympathy For the Record Industry in 1993.
    His philosophy is simple- we are living in a time of Death and he is the Christ/Anti-Christ documenting these days with his paintings. His art work has adorned book covers, comics,records, and Hollywood movie posters. This fall, a documentary of his life will explode across the big screen. The aptly titled Rest In Pieces will expose Joe and his work to the wider audience it deserves. Whether the crowd can handle it or not remains to be seen. Those who can’t wait for the film should go out and buy a copy of Adam Parfrey’s Cosmic Retribution, an entire book dedicated to the man and his art.

Do you consider yourself a misanthrope?

That would be accurate as far as I see the Human race. But, when I do decide to trust someone, I’m totally there for them and I’ll do anything that it takes to stand by them even if it’s going to cost me. I’m a tribal person. I see people as individuals. I don’t believe in the United States. I don’t believe in Mankind. I don’t believe in the white rice. I don’t believe in the Black race. I only believe in the people that I let into my tribe. And, those people are the family. My family. It’s not necessarily blood. But these are the people that I will defend to the death. I don’t give a fuck about anybody but me and my family. This couple spent a year saving up enough money to buy one of my painting and that meant a lot to me. I also had a millionaire buy one of my paintings, But to me these people are no different. I don’t judge. When you show me that you’re untrustworthy, I’ll cut you off from the tribe. Until then, you show me that I can understand you and you can be part of my tribe. But the tribe has to be small. Not like the United States- that’s something I can’t understand. That means nothing to me.

When was the first time you decided to blow yourself up in your performance art?

Fire- an explosion, is passion. That has to do with my relationship with my mother. She and I had this thing going that had nothing to do with my father. When the performances stopped was when she died. When I put my mother to rest was the very last performance. There was no reason to do it after that. The performance was taboo. Like having sex with your mother is taboo. What is the price to pay? What are you going to have to do to atone for that? It doesn’t mean just me. But how are you going to make the Universe okay?

So has Professor Momboozo been laid to rest?

Yes. Separate the word. Mom- my mother. And Boozo- my old man. That’s what they use to call him. He died before my mother. So, Professor Momboozo is dead. So I can’t do that any more.

What is your favorite medium to work with?

I like paint better than anything else. A brush, magnifying lens, and paint is what I love.

How do you pick the subjects for your paintings?

It’s intuitive. Almost like whatever comes up at the time. Right now, I’m working on Albert Hicks. It’s not even like a conceived idea. When I finish one painting, there’s something internal that tells to me what to paint the next time. It’s not in my brain. It’s in my heart. I can’t paint more than one subject at a time. I research it- I go to the library, or bookstore, or do a book search. I go through my own collection of books which is pretty extensive. I research the subject without any preconceived composition. Once I start, I keep painting until the whole surface is covered and then that’s it. I can’t even do research on another painting until I completely finish the one I’ve started.

The macabre is often a big element in your work.

Yeah. I only paint the things that bother me. That doesn’t mean that Joe Coleman can’t enjoy a sunset or a cup of coffee. But the thing is, why should I paint that? The stuff I feel like painting is stuff I have a problem with because I can’t make sense of it. The painting orders it, clarifies it,borders it. It puts boundaries on something that is so overwhelming and disturbing to me.

If you had to pick a single painting as a favorite, from the moment you started the research until you finished the piece, which one would it be?

Probably the painting that went the closest to what I was trying to get at was "Mommy, Daddy".As a painter, I never achieve what I’m after. It’s a constant struggle. I’m never going to get there but I keep trying harder every time. That’s the whole point.

That sounds similar to the Process Church of the Final Judgment.

Yes. Accept that I don’t buy into their stuff. At the same time, I don’t want any followers. When I say that I’m Jesus Christ, it doesn’t mean that I want you to follow me. I am Jesus but I’m only my Jesus. Not yours.

Do you collect anything?

I collect human heads in formaldehyde. I’ve got the penis of George Baskem- the convicted Nigger rapist. I’ve got Albert Fish’s letter that he wrote to the mother of his last victim who he had eaten the letter. My house rivals any pathology museum that you are going to come across but that’s what makes me comfortable. I collect Aurora monster models. I like play sets. I’ve got Ben Hurr which has lots of gladiators. I’ve got a Civil War set, Fort Apache, Ewa gema, and Guadacanal. But most collectors disdain what I do - I like to cut off their heads and painting blood on them. I don’t care about them as a collector’s item. There’s something there that’s a catharsis for me. All this stuff is for me. To use a comparison with someone from popular culture, I much like Gomez Adams from the Adams Family. But it’s because I get off on it.

I understand a person has to get on a waiting list to purchase one of your paintings.

Yes. I can’t paint them fast enough. Right now, there are twelve people on the list. But it’s not like Robert Williams he talks about a list of hundreds. I don’t know if that’s real or not but I like having twelve. They’ve given me deposits. I paint whatever I feel like and, if they want it, that’s fine. If not, it goes to the next person on the list.

Has living in Brooklyn affected your work?

Not at all. If I was living in New Orleans, you could look out the window and see a Joe Coleman painting. You could go to Europe, or Italy, or Japan, any major city you’re going to see a Joe Coleman painting.

What direction is society going in?

Right now, I think it’s very much like the Rome Empire during the fall. But the thing is that I feel it’s a privilege to be alive right now. I think that I was produced at this time because people like me are necessary to record that part of live. The fact that all of my pathology is necessary because nature wants a voice for death. When the locust come and clean out the field, sometimes that goods. Nature made me this way. Gacy and Lucas can’t really do it. They can only play around with the game. Nature produced me to articulate it and be the voice of society.

Why do you think serial killers have become popular icons in our culture?

If you think back in the 1800s, Jesse James and Karl Younger embodied a certain type of anti-hero because they took what no one else had. Then in the early 1900s, people like John Dillenger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Baby Face Nelson did the same thing- they took money from the banks but they were kind of like Robin Hoods. The whole culture could identify with them. But in the 1990s, it’s the end of the century. We’re on the verge of apocalypse. Dillenger, Jesse James, and Carl Younger are kind of quaint. They don’t embody this time. But who does? Albert Fish, Ed Gein, and Jeffrey Dahmer - what is it about them that really defines are culture? They kind of embody that old feeling of revenge. But what do they want revenge against? They don’t want money. They want revenge for being born and that’s what we identify with. That’s the bottom line. A revenge against the world.

Article first published in EsoTerra #7, Spring/Summer 1997