New York

Joe Coleman

Joe Coleman’s paintings and drawings employ the formal reductiveness of comic book illustration as a means of tapping into sources of irrational fear. What sets Coleman’s work apart from even avant-garde cartooning is the degree to which that sense of dread deforms the superficial charm of his illustrations, revealing the link between his adolescent terminology and a very adult ennui. His work recalls that of S. Clay Wilson, the San Francisco artist whose contributions to the legendary Zap Comix line also successfully blended a lascivious interest in horror with a finely tuned psychosis.

Coleman also shares an interest with Sue Coe and Art Spiegelman in exploring degradation through comic imagery. However, Coe and Spiegelman’s political agendas neaten their interest in degradation. Coleman, on the other hand, blankets his imagery in a hazy irony. His orientation is more confessional than conceptual; his goal not entrancement, but broad entertainment. A cross-shaped painting on Masonite, Portrait of Professor Mamboozoo, 1987, shows the artist literally exploding against a toy-speckled universe. In another painting, entitled My Birth, 1987, Coleman depicts his birth in the terms of a low-budget horror film: a giant embryo is surrounded by figures from the artist’s life, who are set into a swirling sky. Ghoulish touches abound: an umbilical cord attached to “mother,” a row of tombstones at the bottom of the image, a string of entrails surrounding a heroic portrait of the artist’s grandfather as a young boxer. The effect in each case is sweetly shocking, with Coleman’s painful self-absorption given a perfectly exaggerated rendering.

Coleman has been making liberating, nihilist work for more than a decade. Its growing popularity among a sophisticated, if nonart, audience would seem to be part of a general acceptance in trendy circles of “objectionable” thrills. One of the artist’s drawings even adorns the cover of Apocalypse Culture, Adam Parfey’s notorious collection of essays and inter- views on such subjects as necrophilia, serial murder, and drug-related religions. Coleman’s self-consciously simple style may keep his art from developing an intellectually complex agenda, but the passion with which he explores the banal symbology of horror also keeps it from merely decorating the comic art family tree.

Dennis Cooper