We are governed by internal monsters. And who is not a fool? Who is free from melancholy? In whom does not passion, anger, envy, jealousy, fear and sorrow reign? I seek pleasure and pay dearly in hangovers, withdrawal and regret. I seek love and though one day it seems solid, the next day it dissolves before me as a painful mirage. I seek knowledge and discover a labarinth of endless contradictions. Today is the time of peril. Age of tears, anguish, and torment. Lonely above all. Full of bitter pain and dread. Sometimes the dread feels too big for my soul to contain. An explosive release is desired.
-- Joe Coleman, from the painting Coal Man, 1997
Joe Coleman is one of the most idiosyncratic and American artists of his generation. He has been labeled as an "outsider artist" but it would be far more accurate to describe him as an artist who is an outsider. Depicted here wearing his Jeweler's lenses (the coal miner's helmet), he is an outsider in the Kafka-esque sense of the human condition, fundamentally alone and apart from others. With a narrative technique as illuminating as gothic fresco, Coleman delves to the heart of the human psyche. His imagery is the opposite of the platonic absolute. The artist grounds the human spirit with brutal depictions of grotesques that illustrate the inner consciousness of the artist's mind but in their humanity address universal anxieties as well as offering assurances to the viewer that we possess a soul worthy of salvation.
"The painting is an extension, both metaphorically and literally, of Coleman's earlier painting Faith (shown in microscopic miniature in the center of this image). Both paintings were created during periods of great despair, yet in this painting the artist has revisited that state in the hopes of reframing it and placing it in a new context. Coleman's impulse to frame, bind and protect his subjects while at the same time mercilessly eviscerating them is never more in evidence than here. This image becomes an exploration of the impulse of suicide, surprisingly functioning as an antidote to that urge. Each day of working on the painting was a day the artist was too busy to kill himself.
The outer border is made up of charms to keep Coleman alive, but which also taunt him with the pleasures of death. These are objects that give him pleasure in life, but they are at the same time celebrations of death, pointing to a state of existence that is free from despair and torment.
The title Coal Man, which is the etymological source of the name Coleman, suggests someone who searches in the darkest dirtiest parts of the underground for something of "value". "
-- Katharine Gates and Joe Coleman, The Book of Joe, Los Angeles, 2003.