‘Doorway to Joe: The Art of Joe Coleman’ Unflinchingly Looks Into the Gaping Maw of Life

Your ability to stomach the grotesqueries of everyday life will determine how much you’re going to get out of the Begovich Gallery’s “Doorway to Joe: The Art of Joe Coleman.” This solo exhibition by the New York artist, accessibly curated by Sara Fortson and Mike McGee, is a litany of depravity—serial killers, voyeurism, religious fanaticism, body horror and sexual shame—the kind of show that doesn’t go away even after you do. The warning at the front door about “adult themes” isn’t hype; it’s truth in advertising. Grab a magnifying glass at the entry table so you can catch every gory detail.

The curator notes tell us Coleman considers every painting a self-portrait, and he’s bold and brutal, giving himself away bit by bit: His fetishes, morbidity, sexual insecurities, terrors and inadequacies are all on display. The intimacy of his paintings—even when sympathetically dissecting the abused backgrounds of murderers—are compulsively revealing. While it sometimes feels as if an insane person is grabbing and shaking you while screaming his lonely misanthropy in your face, this is gritty punk-rock truth of the highest order.

As with painted novels you hang on your walls—comic books an obvious influence—Coleman’s images are often broken up into tiny narrative vignettes that encircle a portrait of the person he’s painting. His two larger-than-life-size portraits of himself (Doorway to Joe) and his wife (Doorway to Whitney), just to the right of the entrance, break down the numerous influences on the couple. For Coleman, it’s people as diverse as performance artist and filmmaker Kembra Pfahler, poet William Blake, and noir novelist Jim Thompson. The faces of loved ones hovering over each of them in a protective barrier reminded me of religious paintings, with saints encircling Christ in heaven. It’s a rare, affectionate moment in a show otherwise drenched in revulsion, but it’s indicative of their attachment to friends; their deep, inviolate connection to each other; and their status as outsiders. Even as awash in misanthropic megalomania as it is, his painting The Book of Revelations, with Coleman and his wife seated in front of a rainbow, pitching their enemies into eternal hellfire, feels confessional and romantic.

Coleman’s obsessions continue into the second part of the gallery, with many of the pictures of celebrities and murderers echoing his personal concerns about dysfunction, addiction, mothers and fathers, history, and women. Text snakes its way around the short stories as though an alimentary track, circling and separating the distilled, troubling images of sexual assault, violence and disease. This provides a brief breather from the horror, while also leading your eyes to the next trauma. It’s Coleman’s scholarship that’s most impressive, more so than his shock value, with it abundantly clear that his breadth of knowledge on the dark subjects on display is thorough and well-researched.

The portrait of a decapitated Jayne Mansfield (American Venus) details the accident that killed her, her role as a Hollywood sexpot, as well as her discipleship in the Church of Satan. Descent Into the Maelstrom of Edgar Allen Poe‘s monographs chronicle the writer’s dead mother and literary references to ravens and tell-tale hearts, with a writing shaky enough to suggest delirium tremens. Psycho inspiration Ed Gein is seated, hands folded gracefully, his mother painted in the same position above his head, an omniscient god looking down on the scattered pieces of butchered women he kept in his barn and home. All of the acrylic-on-Masonite pieces are vividly painted, the green outlines around many of his subjects a radioactive glow, the gaping wounds vivisection red, disfigurement—via virulent tumor or human mayhem—explicit in their intestinal yellows and pinks.

Why would you put yourself through this? I’d say attend out of respect for Coleman’s prodigious talent; he rarely exhibits out here, and there’s so much to see and take in. Each piece of work is so complex in its creation and presentation that one could easily spend hours in the gallery, a Sherlock Holmes looking for all of the Easter eggs in the work.

It’s good for the constitution as well. Yes, the things we might Google in the privacy of our own homes being splashed across the perfect crimson walls of a public gallery can be startling, but you’re in control, in a way you probably aren’t in the real world. And you can walk in and walk away if you wish. Avert your eyes if you must, but Coleman is there—in your ear, whispering, his breath on your neck, guiding your face back to the mirror of society he’s painted. Coleman’s disgust with the way things are—and there is as much dread as there is fascination—is palpable, unforgiving. And he expects you to face that horror with him

“Doorway to Joe: The Art of Joe Coleman” at Cal State Fullerton’s Nicholas & Lee Begovich Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-2011; www.fullerton.edu/arts/art/galleries/begovich_gallery/index.php. Open Mon.-Thurs., noon-4 p.m.; Sat., noon-4 p.m. Free (but you’ll have to pay for parking).

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