Inside the Odditorium of Joe Coleman

Rod Stanley and photographer Jason Nocito got a chance to explore the outsider artist's collection of sideshow curiosities, waxwork figures, and pickled freaks in jars.

Photography by Jason Nocito.
Last September, I was in New York for fashion week, mainly because we were hosting a Dazed party with Diplo and MGMT on top of a skyscraper in Midtown… but I also took the opportunity to interview the legendary 'outsider' artist Joe Coleman, now 53, at home in the amazing apartment in Brooklyn he shares with his wife Whitney. I’d been turned on to his work a couple of years previously by my friend Richard Metzger (founder of the Disinformation publishing company), and my reaction at the time was the same as all those who I have since introduced his work to – ‘Why have I not heard of this guy before’?

Despite a strong cult following, and a small base of celebrity patronage that includes Iggy Pop and Johnny Depp, it’s incredible that Coleman’s work has not become more widely known. His gruesome but fascinating investigations of serial killers, outlaws, childhood traumas and adult terrors, rendered in microscopic detail via his single-hair brush, were sidelined early on by an art establishment that deemed his style of comic-influenced portraiture little more than ‘illustration’. In recent years, however, that has changed, with exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo and the KW Institute in Berlin bringing his work to a much wider audience. The latter show also devoted the entire basement of the building to his Odditorium – a collection of grotesque curiosities, pathology specimens and freaks of nature… many of which are on display in his fantastically crowded apartment, giving it the atmosphere of a carnival sideshow tent rather than a living space.

You can check out the extended feature in the latest issue of Dazed, but here are a few more of Jason Nocito’s awesome shots of Joe and Whitney at home as well as some of the contents of their apartment including their ‘adopted son’ Junior (a malformed baby in a jar) – plus a few of his paintings and a mostly unpublished extract from our Q&A about how the Odditorium relates to Joe's art.

Rod Stanley: You’ve just shown me that arrest warrant on the wall, but there’s so many other amazing objects in here. How long have you been collecting these items?
Joe Coleman: Only since my 20s. The collection is so much a part of my work that it can also reflect the way I work. The overall experience of the room is like my paintings – you look at a painting from a distance, but then if you get close to any of the details, each one has a whole story behind it. I can just grab… here, this is my favorite autograph – it’s William Marwood. He was a famous hangman, who discovered that if you weight the body and measure the distance of the drop, you could cause someone to die instantly. This is his calling card – if you turn the autograph around… here – you will see that it is his calling card.

RS: ‘William Marwood – executor’...
Joe Coleman: And he was the one who hung Charles Peace – who is one of my favorite criminals from your country.
 
RS: Are these pieces in the Odditorium a stimulus for your art, or are they a part of the process?
Joe Coleman: I am trying to find a way of describing it, but I like the fact that with the KW show and the show at Jack Tilton Gallery, both places felt the need to have the Odditorium as part of it… I cannot explain exactly how it is connected, but it seems to me that they feed off each other. Because they talk to me and give me invaluable information – I need them and they need me, because I am their voice, too, and they speak through me.

RS: What legacy do you think this collection might have? Maybe in many years to come, people might come to this as a collection or part of a museum… What do you think people will learn?
Joe Coleman: Well, I do want it to be permanently installed somewhere, we are now actually looking at different places we can house the museum…. But what you can learn from it I think that is up to the viewer, I do not want to tell anybody what they can learn – because I do not judge them. I mean, it has some horrible things and there is a horrible energy where these objects have come from, but it is a comfortable environment – do you not feel comfortable here?

RS: Uh, yes I do. It’s calm. It has a strange atmosphere, I'm sure it's going to stay with me for a few days…
Joe Coleman: I do not judge them – they are all like children to me, and they need their story to be told. You know, I was brought up Irish Catholic and there is something about being Catholic that is so much a part of who I am as an artist. The reliquary became an obsession of mine… like this Saint, the shield is in wax but supposedly it has the remains of the actual saint, real human bones underneath the wax. I am sure my whole attraction to the idea of the reliquary comes from my religious upbringing. But it also exists in the pathology museum, because I have samples of artefacts from pathology museums, and also in the sideshow pieces. I think all of them are interconnected, and that they all speak these wonderful stories… I mean, the word ‘holy’ is normally applied to some kind of religious experience, but there is some kind of awe that you experience in going to a sideshow, and for example you see the body of John Wilkes Booth… there is this awe from the audience.

RS: So, why do you you think there has been a revival of interest in the grotesque?
Joe Coleman: I think maybe one of the reasons why it has had a resurgence… there was a time when death was projected as… you had to put it out of your mind and any mention of death and disease and all these things were not what we wanted to think about. But when the world becomes more fragile... well, the world is always fragile but it became more apparent how fragile the world was . Then I think there was more of a need to get in touch with the darker aspects of the world, because if you make friends with them they are not as frightening. But you only need to think about that when you are in trouble, or when you are fearful, otherwise you want to go around, you know, not even noticing that there is this giant hole you are about to step on. So, I think we went through this change and I think that was why I was taken more seriously. I mean, when Rest In Pieces came out and I was preaching 'humanity as a cancer', people were thinking that is fucking crazy! And then all of a sudden, a lot of people were saying: 'I think you are right!' I think, when you get to that point, when you realize how close we all are to death every day, these things become important. And that is why there would be things like the Capuccin monasteries that have the mummies of the monks, and their bones decorating the arches in beautiful, creative ways – it is beautiful, and also because these were made of the actual monks' bones, it makes the experience so much more emotional… you cannot help having your breath taken away by the awe of that. And I think that we need it, we need to get in touch with that. I mean, I always needed to, but I guess that as a culture now, that is why we now need to.
 
The April ‘Divine Power’ issue of Dazed is on sale now, with Joe Coleman, Jim Sturgess, Golden Silvers, PJ Harvey and a whole load more
See more of Joe Coleman at joecoleman.com
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