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Joe Coleman
Outsider Art / Music at the Barbican, London

One of the events in Only Connect: A Series of Extraordinary Live Events was devoted to the largely unknown realm of Outsider Art / Music. Only Connect's programme exposed the work of reclusive artist Henry Darger, and apocalyptic painter Joe Coleman.

Opening the evening were the American Festival of Microtonal Music Ensemble performing pieces from US composer Harry Partch. Looking like four fast approaching middle aged US professors the opening tracks of voice and cello from Partch's Lo Pi Songs didn't bode well. These were the shorter of the Partch compositions and bizarrely enough they managed to create serious commotion amongst the Barbican patrons in the stalls. The longer tracks had the AFMM Ensemble performing on their home made instruments built to the design specifications of Harry Partch, including such devices as the Kithara and the Proteus chromelodeon. Above vivid watercolour paintings from Darger's magnum opus The Story of the Vivian Girls scrolled across the screen. Darger's fantasy work consisted of little girls, who at times appeared both sexless and androgynous. The Darger / Partch combination was disappointing as it failed to achieve the fusion of sound and vision. The Partch music was off-putting, and Darger's pictures culled from a larger body of work lacked coherence.

The second half of the evening was devoted to the artwork of Joe Coleman. Interestingly the Only Connect Outsider Art / Music show fitted into Joe's personal symbolism of duality and double numbers. Joe Coleman was born on the 22/11/55, lived at house number 99, was married on the 11th of November last year so naturally this event occurred on the 22nd. Amidst his extensive collection of curious items in his Odditorium, Coleman paints most days for eight hours at a time with a magnifying lens and very often a single haired paintbrush. His work is very intricate and contains a multitude of ideas and details per square inch.

The Brooklyn based artist Joe Coleman was in attendance to see his apocalyptic visions set to two films. The first film was set to the music of Carlo Gesualdo, performed by the Clerks Group. This first section was devoted to a selection of Coleman's Humanscapes, his vision of modern day societies in decay. Magnified they're like a weirder and more violent segment of Bosch's hellish vision. In Coleman's eyes today's metropolises are crowded, overpopulated, with plague, suffering, and brutality. It's an unflinching view of the world. The urban sprawl of a Coleman painting is inhabited by human trash: lesion encrusted junkies, piss-stained drunks, prostitutes with open sores. Medical anomalies, and human oddities abound - everyone appears afflicted in a Coleman humanscape. It's a world of anger and rage, where the inhabitants are out to wreak revenge on the world. The initial scenes of sex acts and human degradation even elicited some laughter, presumably from those witnessing Coleman's work for the first time. Backed with choral singing Coleman's painstakingly rendered paintings were transformed into something harrowing and strangely beautiful.

The second part was devoted to Coleman's Portraits, featuring a pantheon of social outcasts, misfits, killers and outsiders, backed by Scottish indie outfit the Delgados. The Delgados, recently acclaimed for their Great Eastern album, may at first have seemed like strange bedfellows but with a four piece string section and using tapes they produced an astounding backing score that segued into different sections to represent each individual portrait. Obsessively researched and detailed every inch of a Coleman portrait - including the hightly decorative border - reveal in symbols, text, and iconography pivotal moments in his subject's life. With their fusion of art and text in many ways they are akin to Blake's illuminated manuscripts. It's a biography rendered in acrylics. Portraits within portraits.

Portraits opened to the disconcerting sounds of greeting cries, as Coleman's portrait of Ed Gein appeared on the screen. As the screen focussed on the various sections unravelling the life of the cannibal killer the Delgados soundtrack echoed the wide and expansive fields of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Ed Gein was followed by American Venus, Coleman's rendering of the tragic life of blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield. Portraits of Harry Houdini, and A Picture From Life's Other Side featuring historical Hillbilly characters followed but curiously Coleman's portrait of Henry Darger wasn't featured in tonight's presentation. Various bomb makers such as Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber featured in the explosive The Big Bang Theory, while Mary Bell and other adolescent killers featured in And A Child Shall Lead Them.

Coleman himself featured in various revealing portraits and self-portraits on display tonight. Hell Hound On My Trail dissects a previous Coleman relationship, while Mommy/Daddy, regarded by Coleman as one of his finest, expresses in allegorical terms Coleman's tormented childhood and parental relationship. It's a painting of love and hate. Joe Coleman paints things that bother him, he's a misanthrope but he's also willing to reward those he trusts with love. One of his newer pieces Lovesong captures a smiling and affectionate Joe Coleman with his newly wedded partner Whitney Ward. Amidst the brutality and human degradation it's a touching portrait, and perhaps his most revealing.

If paintings are the externalisation of Joe Coleman's neuroses, and we are now seeing a happy and contented Joe Coleman in time Lovesong may become one of the more uncomfortable Joe Coleman paintings.

The Joe Coleman section was a triumphant success. Both the specially commissioned soundtrack by the Delgados, and the Clerk's Group choral singing added a heightened dimension to Coleman's skewed vision.

Joe Coleman hopes to work with the Delgados in the future, while the Joe Coleman film show will be displayed in Norway.

Key Resources: - the official Joe Coleman site