New York

Joe Coleman

Western art’s cozy relationship with Catholicism ended somewhere in the eighteenth century, but a vestige of it persists in the work of Joe Coleman. The first item in the brief biography on the artist’s website reads, “1953: Jacqueline Hoban marries Joseph Coleman Sr., and is excommunicated” (his mother remarried without the church’s blessing). Subsequent entries include “1963: Draws first pictures of bleeding saints, death by fire and stabbing” and “1967: ‘Confesses’ to committing several murders, to a priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Norwalk, CT.”

Religious allusions were abundant in Coleman’s recent show at the Tilton Gallery. The gallery was darkened and Coleman’s paintings were illuminated individually like icons in a chapel, and a loosely installed selection from the artist’s “Odditorium” (a personal cabinet of curiosities) included a statue of a female saint in ecstasy, an autopsy photograph, and some found sculptures of severed heads. Coleman’s paintings are dense compositions in the stylistic vein of Hieronymous Bosch by way of R. Crumb; his pantheon includes actors, artists, criminals, and oddball celebrities. Public Enemy Number One (John Dillinger), 1999, chronicles, in comic-strip style, the life and times of the 1930s gangster and popular hero. Tenebrae for Gesualdo, 2004, is a single panel, divided up into altarpiece-like sections, that tells the tale of Carlo Gesualdo, a sixteenth-century Italian composer and aristocrat who murdered his wife and her lover, and possibly also his son and father-in-law. Gorcey, 2006, examines the career of movie actor Leo Gorcey, who played a hooligan in various midcentury movies. Grosz, 2006, memorializes German Dadaist and Neue Sachlichkeit artist George Grosz.

Like medieval and Renaissance Catholic paintings, Coleman’s narrative canvases are filled with gruesome images detailing events also described in tiny hand-rendered text: rape, dismemberment, and murder. He also relishes early-twentieth-century Americana and clearly enjoys the quirky names of the lead characters and bit players (all real people) in his dramas: Gertrude Baniszewski, Melvin Purvis, Hip Kinkel, Lester Gillis (aka Baby Face Nelson).

In his catalogue essay, Steven Holmes likens Coleman’s paintings to the devotio moderna images that fifteenth-century Europeans hung in their homes—works that detailed Christ’s torture and suffering and aligned them with the contemporary horrors of plague, war, and famine. But Coleman’s sensibility seems more James Ellroy than Pieter Brueghel. In the contemporary artist’s lexicon, religion, horror, and spectacle go together. Modern murderers and victims take the place of saints and martyrs, and the Catholic church’s predilection for gruesome propaganda is aligned with the sensationalism of true-crime tabloids, B movies, and pulp fiction.

Coleman makes paintings that display impressive draftsmanship but bypass most of the issues that we expect contemporary painting to address, or at least acknowledge. Still, the storyboard form serves him well as a narrative artist; and it also makes clear the direct throughline leading from early Western devotional iconography—with its vivid depictions of crucifixions and flaying—to the pop culture of the present day. Coleman’s characters, retrieved from the dustbin of history, are joined in unholy matrimony.

Martha Schwendener