Monday, March 31, 2008

Joe Coleman's Paintings as Biographical Information Maps

I recently watched R.I.P.: Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman, a 1997 documentary about the painter and performance artist. Coleman paints detailed, overwhelming, and chaotic scenes in a similar style to Hieronymous Bosch. Coleman's work is categorized as "outsider art," a condescending way of saying an artist is talented, but without the usual pretension of being an artiste.

Although many of Coleman's paintings are autobiographical, he often paints pictures of historic figures that interest him, like Hank Williams or Houdini. The paintings are visual data maps, displaying an incredible amount of biographical information about his subjects. He wears magnifying glasses as he paints minuscule illustrations within his paintings using a single-hair paintbrush. Coleman describes it as, "trying to find more and more information inside each tiny brushstroke." Fellow painter Robert Williams says, "Not only do you get a remarkably well done piece of art with Joe Coleman, but you get a brilliant interpretation of history of whatever subject he would like to express."

Coleman collects information about his subjects with an academic's zeal. He says, "I go to the library, or bookstore, or do a book search. I go through my own collection of books which is pretty extensive. I research the subject without any preconceived composition. Once I start, I keep painting until the whole surface is covered and then that’s it. I can’t even do research on another painting until I completely finish the one I’ve started." For him, a painting categorizes the information he gathers, stating, "The painting orders it, clarifies it, borders it. It puts boundaries on something that is so overwhelming and disturbing to me."

I chose Coleman's "Portrait of Charles Manson" (1988) to illustrate how he creates effective information maps for two reasons. It was the largest biographical image I could find on the web; it reveals some of the tiny illustrations within, but not all. Also, I am well-versed on the Manson Family, allowing me to better "read" the information presented in the painting. Manson has called Coleman, "a caveman in a space ship," which I believe is a compliment!

Joe Coleman's Charles Manson Superstar

Manson is displayed as a Christ-like figure, poised between heaven and hell. Manson may have belonged to the Process Church, which worshiped both Christ and Satan. Manson often referred to himself as Jesus ("Man's Son"). A bloodied, reborn Jesus appears in the upper left (the right hand of Manson, making him God,) while Hitler, another figure Manson admired, is to the upper right.

The trinity of faces are Manson as a young hood, Manson as the Death Valley guru on acid, and Manson as he returned to prison. Manson wears the heads of his Family members as garland like Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and protection. The unmistakable lolling tongue is also a Kali trait.

The Family member portraits are mostly taken from mugshots in Vincent Bugliosi's true crime classic Helter Skelter, and, moving counterclockwise from the top left, I recognize Steven Grogan aka Clem, Bobby Beausoleil, Ruth Ann "Ouisch" Moorehouse, Mary Brunner, Charles "Tex" Watson (on acid when arrested, hence the funny face), Susan Atkins, Stephanie Scram, Leslie Van Houten, Juan Flynn, Bill Vance, Catherine "Gypsy" Share, Sandra Good, Catherine Gillies, Harold True, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Robert Reinhard, Patricia Krenwinkel, Bruce Davis, [Unknown], and Nancy Pitman/Brenda McCann.

The man framed in wood to the left is is George Spahn, the elderly man who owned the ranch that the Family lived on. Looped in intestines to the right is Manson as a young, abused boy in reform school.

The most famous Manson Family victims are (to the left) actress Sharon Tate and hair stylist Jay Sebring. Coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her Polish boyfriend Voytek Frykowski are on the right. They are represented as how they looked in death, including Sebring's face covered, with rope around his neck leading to Tate.

Although most of the illustrations are too small to see, "Rise," "Death to Pigs," and "Helter Scelter" are recognizable in red, replicating what the killers wrote in blood at the Tate/LaBianca crime scenes.

Manson believed that the Beatles encoded their music with messages and their song "Helter Skelter" alluded to an apocalyptic race war between whites and blacks, which Manson and his Family would emerge the victors to repopulate the earth. (Hence the fighting figures in the bottom of the painting). Although Helter Skelter was an important part of the Manson Family mythos, the drug-addled hippies never seemed to spell it right. "Helter Scelter" was written at Spahn Ranch; "Healter Skelter" was written on the LaBianca's refrigerator in their blood.

The forearm tattoos refer to "creepy crawls," a Family practice of breaking into the homes of sleeping people, rearranging their furniture, and stealing things: basically test runs for murder.

Interestingly enough, the Manson girls created their own autobiographical information map: an embroidered jacket for Manson that illustrated important Family moments. When they shaved their heads while Manson was on trial, the girls added their hair as fringe. They sent the jacket to Manson in prison, and, hardened criminal that he was, he cut it into pieces and gave them to other prisoners so they wouldn't steal it from him.

Explore Joe Coleman's website, including a gallery of his paintings with detailed views.

For further reading, visit an excellent blog about data visualization: Information Aesthetics.

1 comment:

Hugh Sawyer said...

The original of this piece is on display in the H.R. Giger museum in Gruyere, Switzerland. It is part of Giger's personal collection which is housed on the top floor.