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Abnormal Rockwell: Joe Coleman

Serial killer-obsessed painter Joe Coleman puts thegraphic back in graphic art

Expelled from New York City’s School of VisualArts in 1978 (where a teacher called his work “fascist” and”schizophrenic”), Joe Coleman scratched out a living performing asa one-man freak show, biting the heads off rats. “I had all thisrage,” recalls the painter, the son of an alcoholic and thesurvivor of a Catholic upbringing. “I just got so frustrated I wanted toexplode.” But after 25 years of (figuratively) chomping away andfollowing his own muse, Coleman, 46, has more fulfilling options forearning his rent money. From his Brooklyn studio, a dimly litapartment crammed with medical oddities, torture devices, and mummies,he devotes himself to rendering intricately imagined scenes of thetormented and alienated–carnival geeks, criminals, and madmen.

The waiting list (now three years long) for Coleman’s macabrecanvases has included such suffering Hollywood souls as Johnny Deppand Leonardo DiCaprio. Not surprisingly, Korn frontman JonathanDavis is also a fan: He and Coleman plan to open a museum in LosAngeles showcasing serial killer memorabilia (potential exhibitsinclude Ted Bundy’s car and John Wayne Gacy’s clown costume), a jointproject that’s sure to win over new fans, if not Coleman’sdetractors at SVA. “The irony is that I was asked to be an adviser therelast year,” says Coleman. “I was counseling people to get out ofart school.”