Occupying three floors at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art (Berlin), “Internal Digging” from Joe Coleman, curated by Susanne Pfeffer, was the first exhibition to encompass all aspects of Joe Coleman´s work. Joe Coleman (born in 1955) paints, draws, performs, makes music and collects. According to the text that accompanies the exhibition, he has been collecting relics, specimens, documents and oddities in his apartment in Brooklyn for more than thirty years and these are his own source of inspiration and reference for his wax figures, paintings, drawings and films.
Though he states he has no idea how the whole image is going to look like when he starts it, his dense visual cosmos combines the compositional principles of icon painting with those of comic strips. He mostly portrays bikers, serial killers, hillbillies, escape artists, and elephant men, curiosities that both remind us of former cabinets de curiosité and fairgrounds, mixed with contemporary reality at times, directly dealing with perversity, mental disease, obscenity, pornography and murders.
Coleman´s wax figure, depicting himself inside a coffin – asks us: “Has it occurred to you that this may be your last farewell?” and then his laughter sounds just like an horror movie. There are in fact, some pretty horrible things to see and read throughout the exhibition and at the end of the visit one is reminded of Coleman´s disturbing question at the beginning of the show.
At some point, in one of his paintings, he compares himself to George Grosz and his country situation to the one lived in Weimar / Germany in the past. He says: “With a great savage cruelty Grosz attacked with pen, brush and paint what he hated and what he feared… humanity. I have always felt a strong kinship with him. I live in a society not unlike Grosz´s Weimar Germany just before the rise of Fascism. The disillusionment of the Vietnam war, the decadence of the sex and drug revolution all seem to mirror the world of George Grosz”.
The exhibition is truly a plunge into Coleman´s private obsessed and tormented world, where all the vicious and sick aspects of human kind are depicted in a detailed and propagandistic way, just like sensationalist press but on painting. Because we feel no empathy nor compassion, his work doesn´t qualify as grotesque, it´s purely horrifying. His vision is totally pessimistic and by the time we leave the show we are totally convinced that there can´t be no salvation! Specially disturbing is his painting on child murders, stressing how people, and even children, always took pleasure in performing the most horrifying acts.
Coleman´s paintings force the viewer to bring his own moral judgments into play, there is no possibility of detached contemplation nor visual pleasure. Coleman confronts us with your our own general desire to watch and observe but return us the sickest of visions. One is forced to speak and think of “evil” with no chance to understand it or, making it rational by framing it within a given social context. It is just there with no possible explanation. There´s no doubt on his technique but, one questions the pertinence of being confronted with such a vision. Why should his work matter?
He is emphasizing something that we all know that exists but, for in order to keep on living, we forget and trust that it is under control through laws, penalties, jail and in some countries death sentences. Unfortunately he only shows and explores it and takes no stand. Still, it could be argued that he is forcing the viewer to think about it. In this sense, his value would then be, by exploring our sick desire of looking into horrifying things, he would intend to make us feel something and force us to make a judgment. But is this strategy really of worth, when we are subject to violence and cruelty in other media on a daily basis? Has such an exposure really made us more political?
Coleman has exhibited at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam (2201) and in Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2007) and is represented in many important art collections, specially in the USA.