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Joe Coleman on Fine Art, Comics, and Charles Manson

This is one of a series of follow-up interviews with each of the four participants in our Fine Art and Cartoonists Roundtable. There are also follow-up interviews with Williams, Bell, and Waston.

"To me, the only way you should ever paint or produce art is 'Hooray for me and fuck you.'" — Joe Coleman

I admire and appreciate the simplicity and flexibility — and practicality — of Joe Coleman’s approach to drawing the line between comics and fine art. Just scrap the whole premise entirely. Make it totally irrelevant where or why or how or even if Lyonel Feininger’s semi-Cubist Sunday funnies compares on the high/low sliding scale to his — or anyone else’s — Expressionist woodcuts, Bauhaus photos and orchestral fugues. It makes much more sense — and it's a lot more productive — to explore the ways in which his Kin-der-Kids adventures stack up to his Wee Willie Winkie's World abstractions. So, hey: let’s just swing with that.

 — Michael Dooley

MICHAEL DOOLEY: Rather than “outsider” or “lowbrow” art, the important thing for you is, there’s good art and there’s bad art. Right?

JOE COLEMAN: Yes.

DOOLEY: So how would you define those terms, good art as distinguished from bad art?

COLEMAN: There could be a number of different qualifications for that. You know, I’m also someone who enjoys comics as well, so I don’t feel that comics are in some way an art form that is lesser. But just as there are good paintings and bad paintings, there are good comics and bad comics. In any art form, there are different criteria for what makes good and bad, as well. For instance, some works may be well executed with a formal quality that makes them stand out in a way, and with other works of art, there may be something that is very thoughtful and makes you really think. And there are other works of art that just reach you on an emotional level or hit you in the gut and your response comes from that. So, to me, it’s like the three places are the mind, the heart and the gut. And I think the works that are really successful touch on all of those, but are usually stronger in one or the other. Probably the most successful, are the ones that reach me in the gut first and then the other places later. Like if something is just, say, painted or written really well, that may be enjoyable to some degree, but it just doesn’t stay with you, or stick to your ribs. And if something is really provoking and you can’t add one thing, it kind of becomes like an infection and you’ve become infected with it and it changes your life. I remember when I read the prison diary of Carl Panzram, Killer: A Journal of Murder, it changed my life, changed the way I looked at the world. He had a certain quality about his writing. He had no formal education. But, here is a guy reading Immanuel Kant and Schopenhauer, searching for that kind of literature in prisons in the early 1900s. He spoke from his own experience. It is very profound and speaks in a way that touches anyone. He might be considered an “outsider,” but it’s powerful writing and it doesn’t need to be apologized for.  It doesn’t need to have parentheses around it saying it’s not literature or that it’s in some other category. And I think that’s true for any art form. It doesn’t have to be qualified, like the word “comics.” I have no shame in the word comics — you know how some people talk about “sequential art” or some other pretentious words.

DOOLEY: So your entry point, no matter what the medium, is a visceral one.

COLEMAN: Yeah.

DOOLEY: If you can’t connect that way, you don’t go any further.

Film poster for Ed Wood's famous 1959 Z movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

COLEMAN: Yeah, it could be a great symphony or something, but if it doesn’t really reach me … There’s a mixture now of pop art or at least popular art and fine art that may be what’s causing the dialogue to happen right now. It’s funny, I’m thinking in the sense of movies like what used to be deemed a grade-Z or B movie, or serials, like the second feature might have superheroes like Batman or something, but now those are the A pictures so there’s kind of a reversal of what it had been when I grew up watching TV and movies. And some of that is going to be crap in the way that there was always some crap in grade-B movies. Not all of them were like Sam Fuller movies.  As an independent filmmaker, he would write, produce and direct B movies that would maybe be made in a few days time, but are compelling in both the way they’re shot and in the subject matter. Fuller dealt with racial issues, pedophilia, communism and other highly taboo subject matter for the 1950s. But then you also have compelling A pictures from that period like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Which was beautifully shot by cinematographer Haskell Wexler in a moody B-movie-like black and white.  When Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are duking it out in a kind of exorcism on screen, it is very much like Sam Fuller’s B movies, and I find them both compelling.

DOOLEY: You mentioned earlier on in the conversation that Warren’s Creepy magazine had a particular appeal for you.

COLEMAN: Yeah, and that was when I was much younger. The Creepy magazine definitely did. And even the trashier ones that I mentioned during the panel discussion because I had worked with Myron Fass. He did really cheesy comics like Tales of Voodoo, Weird Worlds and Shock. They were reprints of EC imitations of the 1950s with a new cover that was really gory. There was something about those covers that reminded me of sideshow banners.

DOOLEY: Right.

COLEMAN: The covers were always so enticing and so over the top, that when you opened them, the inside was never as exciting as the cover.  But with EC, I found that the work of Reed Crandall was some of the most underrated of those artists. Wally Wood I liked too, but he got the big following, as did Johnny Craig and Joe Orlando and even [John] Severin has a following for his realistic Western work, but I think Reed Crandall was probably the most unsung of those guys and I really got into that a lot. And later, I liked people like Russ Heath, who was really interesting. I think he only did maybe one Warren Blazing Combat story, then worked for some of the other war comics.

Cover to Crack Comics Issue No. 48. 1947 Reed Crandali

DOOLEY: What was your journey from those Warren magazines to the Dickinson gallery? You were mentioning that the art schools weren’t doing it for you.

COLEMAN: No, they weren’t, but to go back further in my childhood even before comics, I was exposed to religious art that was in the church that I grew up in. They had the stations-of-the-cross in relief. My mom got me a book on Hieronymus Bosch. I also looked into the art that was behind Bosch, and I saw other works of fine art that were really inspiring to me. Bosch, with his whole Christian iconography that dealt with heaven and hell and demons, also has parallels in Tibetan art. These other kinds of religious art forms were very interested in the narrative and how that connected to art. The narrative has always been fundamental. It’s what draws me into even creating any kind of artworks, so of course, comics are a part of that. And I guess there’s something about religious art that’s gone beyond storytelling. I think it was those religious painters that were also going for the gut because they were trying to scare the shit out of the audience. A church is the scariest building you’d go into. You would feel that God’s looking right into your soul. They would build a church in such an imposing or threatening way and these paintings would just get right inside you and take you by the throat. And they meant a lot to me. I could also sense that there was something honest about it even though I came to disagree and feel that I didn’t believe in the rhetoric of the church that I grew up in. I still felt there was a certain authenticity in those painters that were making those works of art. And when I found cartoonists who were making works of art that seemed to speak in a really honest way about disturbing things I guess that’s what really captured me. And it could come from the cheapest of the cheap, like in the sideshow. That’s considered one of the lowest art forms, but you have someone like Johnny Eck, the half-man, that’s selling his own pain as public spectacle, for public amusement.

DOOLEY: And so, what you were seeing compelled you enough to pick up your own paintbrush and have at it?

COLEMAN: Oh, from the very beginning. The first drawings I did were when I was in the church. My mother gave me a pad with some crayons and a pencil, and I drew the stations-of-the-cross, what I saw around me, and the only crayon I used was the red crayon for the blood. So, it started that early. I think anything you want to get good at you have to start early on.

COLEMAN: No, they weren’t, but to go back further in my childhood even before comics, I was exposed to religious art that was in the church that I grew up in. They had the stations-of-the-cross in relief. My mom got me a book on Hieronymus Bosch. I also looked into the art that was behind Bosch, and I saw other works of fine art that were really inspiring to me. Bosch, with his whole Christian iconography that dealt with heaven and hell and demons, also has parallels in Tibetan art. These other kinds of religious art forms were very interested in the narrative and how that connected to art. The narrative has always been fundamental. It’s what draws me into even creating any kind of artworks, so of course, comics are a part of that. And I guess there’s something about religious art that’s gone beyond storytelling. I think it was those religious painters that were also going for the gut because they were trying to scare the shit out of the audience. A church is the scariest building you’d go into. You would feel that God’s looking right into your soul. They would build a church in such an imposing or threatening way and these paintings would just get right inside you and take you by the throat. And they meant a lot to me. I could also sense that there was something honest about it even though I came to disagree and feel that I didn’t believe in the rhetoric of the church that I grew up in. I still felt there was a certain authenticity in those painters that were making those works of art. And when I found cartoonists who were making works of art that seemed to speak in a really honest way about disturbing things I guess that’s what really captured me. And it could come from the cheapest of the cheap, like in the sideshow. That’s considered one of the lowest art forms, but you have someone like Johnny Eck, the half-man, that’s selling his own pain as public spectacle, for public amusement.

DOOLEY: And so, what you were seeing compelled you enough to pick up your own paintbrush and have at it?

COLEMAN: Oh, from the very beginning. The first drawings I did were when I was in the church. My mother gave me a pad with some crayons and a pencil, and I drew the stations-of-the-cross, what I saw around me, and the only crayon I used was the red crayon for the blood. So, it started that early. I think anything you want to get good at you have to start early on.

Sculpture depicting the 13th Station of the Cross. Tony Fischer

DOOLEY: And at one point, did it go beyond your group of immediate friends to a wider audience, the art you were producing?

COLEMAN: Well, it kind of went up and down. Lady Bird Johnson was my first collector. When I was in third grade I did this painting of garbage that my teacher thought was really great, and she put it in this children’s-art show that was in city hall in my hometown. At that time, Lyndon Johnson was president and Lady Bird Johnson was going on this tour of America with her “Keep America Beautiful,” anti-litter campaign. When she came to the city hall in Norwalk, Conn., and saw my painting of garbage she thought it was a great indictment against litter, and bought it for her children’s-art collection.  I still have the newspaper clippings about it. So she was my first collector.

DOOLEY: That’s a great story. So, how did the Dickinson Gallery get in touch with you?

COLEMAN: Well, I’m jumping over a lot … I’ve been really fortunate to have so many passionate and supportive collectors who have championed my work over the years. They’ve even facilitated shows where nothing was available for sale. There was a big retrospective of my work at Jack Tilton Gallery on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. It was seen by a curator from Paris who brought it to the Palais de Tokyo Museum in Paris. Then a German curator brought it to the KW Institute in Berlin, and it kept growing. Shortly after, Hugo Nathan, the director of Dickinson Gallery in New York, put on a show of my work in one room and Memling and a bunch of the old masters in the other room. I guess the curator thought of it as some kind of wrestling match between me and the old masters.

DOOLEY: Uh-huh.

COLEMAN: And I was honored, but I thought I whipped their ass … but [laughs] that’s just me.

DOOLEY: You didn’t have much respect for art school as a way of advancing your career.

COLEMAN: Absolutely not. Well, I told you the story about getting kicked out.

DOOLEY: You had mentioned you had gotten kicked out. You were talking about the run-in that you had with one of the teachers there. But to dismiss all schools, isn’t that kind of overly simplistic? In the sense that other schools have different teachers, criteria, methods?

COLEMAN: Yeah, I would agree with you that it’s overly dismissive. I’m only talking about things that worked for me. I wouldn’t want anyone to imitate my history, because it was a pretty hard road that I took. I’m not advocating it. I’m just saying that’s what worked for me. Especially at the time I was going to school it was detrimental, it was getting in the way. At that time it was the minimalists that were the big thing, certainly they were against figurative art then. And it was the whole idea of illustration, and these ideas that figurative art died with the invention of the photograph, which is ridiculous. It was a bad time for the kind of art I was about to do, but on the other hand I would also say it was really fortunate when you have a clear enemy, when someone is brushing up against you, it’s fuel for your furnace, and that’s always good to have.

DOOLEY: [Laughs.] Indeed. You brought up a couple times the neon art you didn’t care for. I was figuring that was in reference to Bruce Nauman.

COLEMAN: Yeah, his sculpture with words.

DOOLEY: Yeah, exactly.

COLEMAN: Even though, I think I do value words in art so much, but in the manner of the illuminated manuscripts and the comics, I do find that it’s valuable in art, but not at the cost of taking the meanings and the intent behind the words away, the abstraction. There’s something to be said that, even though my artwork is obsessive, it’s obsessive in a very direct and simple way, so the obsessiveness is very direct and not convoluted, which so much of the art world is.

DOOLEY: Apropos of this whole discussion about art and its meaning, there was one Nauman text piece that he did in script that spiraled out, and it read, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths.” [Both laugh.]

COLEMAN: It’s pathetic. [Dooley laughs.] I guess that’s what the real truth is.

DOOLEY: That’s one going for the mind rather than the heart, or the gut at least. [Laughs.]

COLEMAN: I seriously doubt that it’s going for the mind really that far. At least I hope not.

Bruce Nauman's 1967 piece The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. Jon Seidman

DOOLEY: Since it’s subjective, since different art will speak with different people on different levels, doesn’t the bottom line come down to, what’s going to last? What will future generations continue to look at after the dust clears? Illustration work will fall by the wayside, and fine art will indeed continue to reveal itself, reveal mystic truths over the centuries?

COLEMAN: Well, if you go to the Met there’s not too much of that from that past. But, you know, that doesn’t concern me that much. What concerns me is what moves me. I’m not going to be here in that time you’re talking about. I mean maybe if I’m successful at having myself mummified in permanent exhibition at my own “Odditorium.” [Dooley laughs.] But shy of that, no, I won’t be here. So it won’t really matter, what matters now are my passions while I’m here, while I’m alive.

DOOLEY: How do you see your art connecting with what’s going on in today’s society in any direct form?

COLEMAN: Just because I’m here and people seek it out and I’ve had a chance to reach so many people. That’s the only indication that I have that would answer that question. How much that it means to people who have the work. That somebody might have had one of my paintings for many years and been living with it and one day they call me up and tell me there’s something they’ve just seen or discovered for the first time and they just have to call me and share it with me, you know it’s someone that it’s touched. That’s the real evidence, simple things like that.

DOOLEY: I was thinking in terms also of how we’ve been talking about pop art, how suddenly products in commerce were the thing to paint. Back in the days of the Impressionists people looked at fields and cathedrals and such, bowls of fruit. But by the time pop art came around, you no longer made your own food from scratch, you just bought your soup in cans, so Warhol just starts painting cans. And people are looking at billboards, so Rosenquist is doing billboards. As people walk around and look at today’s society would they see something in your paintings that reflect what they’re looking at today?

James Rosenquist's 1963-1964 painting, World's Fair Mural. Sharon Mollerus

COLEMAN: You mean in everyday life?

DOOLEY: Yeah.

COLEMAN: I would say yes, but I’m probably not the one to answer that question. You’d have to ask someone else. I would feel yes, the only thing I could say to that extent is that, strangely, previous to Sept. 11th, I was called an outsider, but since Sept. 11th, all of a sudden I’m not. It’s as if the world had to catch up to me through all that horror, that things are not as nice as they thought.

Dooley: So how has that perspective changed?

COLEMAN: I think that maybe a way of saying it is: In a lot of ways, my work comforts those who are uncomfortable and makes uncomfortable those who are comfortable. Now there are a lot more people that are uncomfortable. 

DOOLEY: Also, to look at your work is to look at scenes that are out of present time. They’re journeys to some other place that exist in memory, perhaps.

COLEMAN: But also really exist too, and maybe not so far.

DOOLEY: You mentioned your correspondence with Charlie Manson, that he would send you his hair ...

COLEMAN: Yeah. I have a lock of his hair. I don’t know if you’ve seen the painting I did of him? We corresponded for a while before I did the painting of him and he sent me a lock of his hair and this letter where he describes me as  “a caveman in a spaceship.” That was used as the quote on the cover of Cosmic Retribution, my first book that I did with Fantagraphics and Feral House. I corresponded with [John Wayne] Gacy as well, but the guy I am corresponding with the most right now is Charlie Bronson, the U.K.’s so-called “most violent criminal.” Not Charlie Bronson the actor, Charlie Bronson the prisoner. He’s also a quite interesting artist as well. He’s got a lot of valuable things to say.  He’s got as much to say as Carl Panzram about incarceration …

DOOLEY: Well, who initiated the dialogue between you and Manson?

COLEMAN: If I remember correctly, I think the dialogue was initiated from sending him a copy of The Mystery of Wolverine Woo-bait, which is an old comic-book novel I did at the time, years ago in the ’70s.

Back cover of The Mystery of Wolverine Woo-Bait. 

DOOLEY: You also mentioned shooting dope. Do you find there are particular drugs that are a help or hindrance to your creativity visually?

COLEMAN: I would say about drug use that they’re both. Any drug is both, can be freeing and destroying, it can chain you or it can free you. It’s a struggle in life to tightrope back. The ones I chose were personal, my own personal demons. Just like you have your own fingerprints, your drug or drugs of choice, are personal. And anything you do in your life informs your art. Expanding the possibilities of human experience is expanding the possibilities of what you portray in your work. So I would say yes, it does, but it can also destroy it too. Just for the record, I haven’t used drugs for many, many years, and, though I don’t regret having used them, I definitely don’t recommend it either.

DOOLEY: We’ve been covering quite a bit here. Is there anything else in the whole comic-book/fine-art discussion that you think is worth talking about, that we may have missed?

COLEMAN: I really don’t think so. The fact that you’re discussing it is good. I have always felt that there should not be these distinctions. I think I brought up before, that it used to be that photography was not considered a real art form, or film even was not a real art form. You just can’t dismiss any medium as an invalid form of expression. If it passed the test of my gut, if it moves me, then it is.

DOOLEY: And you were saying that you admired Duchamp. Now, he was very much a mind guy more than a gut guy.

Marcel Duchamp's 1915-1923 piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). © 2011 André LuísCOLEMAN: Yeah, well, he was a gut guy only when he was doing it. What I was saying about him was that when he did it, then it had some balls to it, but now every single fucking art student, they all have to do his work. It only worked when there were only a few people that were doing it. It’s so easy to do now, but when he was doing it, it was not easy. When he was doing it, it was true rebellion, but it’s not anymore; it’s the opposite, it’s pandering.

DOOLEY: So you don’t see any of his followers extending the dialogue?

COLEMAN: Absolutely not.

Transcribed by Anna Pederson

 

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