Tag Archives: Spring 1998

Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman

Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe ColemanJim Jarmusch, John Yau, and Harold Schechter
Heck Editions ($29.95)

by Brian Evenson

With forty-three color plates, numerous black and white images, and essays by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, art critic John Yau, and cultural critic Harold Schechter, Original Sin is a strong introduction to Joe Coleman's painting. In work that owes something to altar pieces, investigations of skin disease, l'art brut, and creep shows, Coleman creates a highly visceral and disturbing art which plunges so deeply into the subconscious that it is difficult for the viewer to resurface.

Many of Coleman's paintings focus on historical figures who are literal or symbolic outsiders. These range from the seemingly benign, such as Houdini, Jayne Mansfield, Sigmund Freud, and musician Hasil Adkins; to artists associated with madness and excess, such as Edgar Allen Poe, L.-F. Céline, and Adolf Wölfli; to serial killers such as Carl Panzram, Charles Manson, Albert Fish, and Ed Gein. These portraits are surrounded by quotations from or about the figure and by small related images and scenes, often grotesque. The paintings demand to be read and explored. By doing so, the viewer enters a world, for instance, where a small image of Ed Gein pulling a body across the snow has a remarkable resemblance to a Currier & Ives winter scene.

John Yau sees such paintings as Coleman finding historical counterparts for his id, thus establishing a "dissonant, lyric 'I.'" This strikes me as a much more effective reading of Coleman than Harold Schechter's more predictable attempt to fit Coleman into a Jungian model of archetypes. Indeed, part of the reason Coleman's paintings work is that the figures he presents remain palpable and real, irreducible; even as they create an "I" for Coleman, they remain schizophrenic, an assemblage of horrors all speaking in their own voices.

In works such as Divine Comedy and Immaculate Conception, Coleman explores groups of often grotesque figures in ways that recall Bosch, Brueghel, Otto Dix, and others. At least as intriguing are the paintings closer to Coleman himself, images like Mommy/Daddy, which explore Coleman's conflicted relationship to his mother and father, or the disturbing self- portrait Auto-Autopsy, in which Coleman's eye is being pried out while creatures made of genitalia cavort below.

Acknowledging the strong connections between his personal life and his art, Original Sin also offers a portrait of Coleman the man. In an index, the portraits are keyed, with interpretations provided for some of the images. As a person, Coleman is, to say the least, an odd duck. He used to fake being a beggar. He bit the heads off mice in public performance (much to Bob Barker's dismay), and broke into strangers' houses to play the exploding man by lighting off fireworks hidden under his shirt. He keeps an "Odditorium" (full tour included in Original Sin), which Jarmusch calls "one of the world's greatest collections of extremely weird shit." It contains such goodies as a fetus named Junior, paintings by serial killer John Wayne Gacy, a reliquary containing a piece of Jesus, a lock of Charles Manson's hair, the death cast of Vincent Price's face, and two mummified Fijian mermaids.

Not for the faint of heart, Coleman's art is nevertheless the real thing, exploring a space few others dare to touch. Likely to appeal to comix aficionados, carny lovers, and art enthusiasts alike (though in quite different ways), Coleman's art rubs right up against the raw nerves of the viewer's own subconscious, sparking a sense of reaction and recognition even as it insists on its extreme otherness.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998

Backward to Forward

Backward to Forward: Prose Pieces by Maurice KennyProse Pieces
Maurice Kenny
White Pine ($14)

by Mark Anthony Rolo

For most of his life, Maurice Kenny has been a "Mohawk poet on the road." Leaving his homeland, the foothills of northern New York state, the young mixed-blood Kenny grew up traversing the country—city to city, writing and teaching. Now, he wants to go home.

Backward to Forward marks the poet's retirement from that journey, and his return to the land of his Native ancestors. This collection of essays is in many ways a memoir for Kenny. But it's not a reflection on his personal struggle for identity and place. It is a memoir of observations. Sifting through a lifetime of political and social ideas, Kenny has chosen to write about those his imagination has refused to abandon.

In his first essay, "Tinseled Bucks: A Historical Study in Indian Homosexuality," Kenny approaches a subject rarely discussed in Native American history. Certainly the most provocative of his essays, "Tinseled Bucks" argues that pre-colonized indigenous tribes often embraced homosexuality. "Every American Indian tribe had its fetishes and taboos, but no tribe had ironclad laws that said a young man need take this or that path; he made up his own mind and followed the direction of his 'puberty vision' and his natural inclination, though the tribal mores prodded him toward the warrior-hunter career." Kenny informs us that as Native people reclaim their original language and cultures, so too, are many gay Indians recovering those traditional views on homosexuality.

Other essays that make up the first section of "Backward to Forward trace the lives of individual Native heroes and victims who have been left out of the pages of history books. In "The Murder of Jack Smith" Kenny uncovers the hidden tale of half-breed gold miner. After panning out $222 worth of gold that would have given him a land claim to what is today the city
of Denver, Smith was accused of beating his Indian wife and banished from the community of greedy gold rushers. Kenny asserts that such an accusation leveled against Smith was probably not only fabricated, but also an aberration, considering that beating Indian wives was usually an acceptable pastime for miners.

In the second section, Kenny addresses, among other issues, Native storytelling traditions. Drawing a connection to oral storytelling traditions is one of the most endearing notions, perhaps even fantasies, for too many Native writers. Kenny is no exception. While the impulse of an oral storyteller may flow through the creative veins of modern Indian authors, theirs is no extension of this ancient art of storytelling. Those writers who fancy themselves as modern Native carriers of culture, may only be seeking validation. It's perfectly harmless, but misguided.

In any event, such an identification makes for wonderful literary notions, as Kenny demonstrates quite well with the following passage: "There is nothing more stirring than an oral poem or prayer, especially when it is accompanied by a water drum and the sound of a hundred or more feet dancing, touching earth, the mother of us all; exciting the participatory listener to near frenzy, then further to a visionary state of being."

But what is not "perfectly harmless" is Kenny's subversive critique of the life and work of "America's Homer," Walt Whitman. Reminding us of Whitman's stint as an employee of the Indian Affairs bureau in Washington, DC, Kenny gives us the historical context as it relates to federal and Indian relations of that day. He cannot fathom how the era of Indian wars seemed not to have pricked the conscience of the poet who would almost single-handedly create the landscape of this country's imagination. Whitman, like Longfellow, imagined Indians as only noble savages.

Yet Kenny is hopeful. "Sitting Bull, Rain-in-the-face, Black Kettle, Roman Nose, and their brothers and sisters still await a courageous poet to recreate their lives and deeds, their monumental strengths and successes, and their suffering in verse, for the eyes and ears of the world. Perhaps their own living sons and daughters will take up the pen. Whitman's indifference failed them."

Maurice Kenny has been a quiet writer through the years, but with Backward to Forward, Kenny should at the very least receive recognition for offering a Native view on our past.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998

Special Cases

hydrocephalic child

Hydrocephalic child whose skull has opened like a flower (photo by Rosamond Purcell)

Rosamond Purcell
Chronicle Books ($24.95)

by Rikki Ducornet

The monstrous is unsettling because it appears to belong nowhere but its own boundless category. Like a lobster at a kosher meal, it always exemplifies chaos. Reduced to curiosities, the bearded lady, the piebald child, and the dwarf are thrust into an impossible genus: extraordinem—containing everything from fingered lemons to bogus mermaids.

Peter the Great of Russia's Kunstkammer claimed four human prodigies including a dwarf so prized that when he died Peter had him stuffed and placed on view along with all the other meraviglie, including his defunct footman's seven foot skeleton, topped by a skull that, mysteriously, was not his own. The seventeenth century dwarf Sebastiano Biavati was the curator of the cabinet in which he was on display—a species of genteel house arrest—and the only thing alive in a collection of tusks, dead turtles, corals and curious shells. Writes Purcell:

We always drive the monster out—to live beyond geographical boundaries of the known world, to be set out, figuratively upon the water as on a ship of fools, to be ostracized on the street, treated as insane, or as a singular being who truly has no group at all and who is forced to live like the Minotaur, Grendel, or Caliban—in a labyrinth, on the edge of town, or at the far end of the island.

If the monster is made to live in banishment, his place of origin too, is that of exile: "Note that at the furthest reaches of the world often occur new marvels and wonders," wrote the fourteenth century author of the Polychronicon, "as though Nature plays with greater freedom secretly at the edges of the world than she does openly and nearer us in the middle of it."

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French natural historian Buffon, eager to calculate "appropriate" human size, decided that the average height of a man was five feet, a giant seven, and a dwarf three. And if he conceded that the sizes of giants and dwarfs are variable, he was certain the ideal was constant at five. One cannot help but think of Dean Swift's vision of shrinking and expanding humanity, and one need not be a dwarf to sympathize with Gulliver's emblematic impotency and infantilization in Brobdingnag, nor to be incensed by Purcell's historical examples of sentient beings reduced to toys and the slavish objects of
erotic games—such as the tiny cripples sold for pleasure in the specialized markets of Rome, and Josef Boruwlaski (1739-1837), admired by aristocrats for his wise and brilliant conversation, who suffered the Swiftian indignity of being dandled on the laps of great ladies. I imagine Mr. Boruwlaski's famous "fiery eyes" burned very darkly indeed at such moments.

"People," Purcell reminds us in her extraordinary book—a book inspired by the exhibit she curated for the Getty in 1994—"struggle to redefine their territories in order to better determine the 'center' of the world and to declare who should occupy it." Purcell's intention
is not merely to offer a glimpse of the world's "fantastic edges" (although her gorgeous photographs demonstrate that no one behind a camera today 'sees' those edges as she does) but to remind us that the informed heart encompasses all edges, imagined and unimaginable, known, unknown and knowable. The world is not threatened nor diminished but instead made richer by such marvelous beings as Mary Sabina, the astonishingly beautiful "Piebald Black Child" (born in 1736) whose portraits acquire an emblematic potency not because of her exotic environs, her skin so very black, so very white, but because the white mark on her black brow is in the shape of a dove in flight. Like the "signifying monkey" of the East Purcell elsewhere describes, who delivers and interprets sacred messages, Mary Sabina is "full of signifying ways." And it is no accident that having offered us this vision of transcendence Purcell next evokes "black catching" in Tasmania (and the extinction of an entire human group) and quotes both Louis Agassiz and Anthony Trollope, whose racism is all the more appalling in the context of a book in which the boundaries of the human have been so usefully, so graciously extended.

Life can be monstrous because it is born of and ends in chaos, but moral and existential dilemmas are not solved (and are often aggravated) by the gathering and classifying of things. "Implied in the institutional hoarding of dead things," Purcell writes, evoking in this reader the drugged denizens of our mental institutions, "is a shoring up against mortality." In the Western world, personal pride has long been confused with ownership. And ownership, Purcell demonstrates, is always political. "Both the impulse and the achievement may be termed as monstrous."

Rosamond Purcell's thoughtful study of anomalies closes with a picture of a human skeleton with its face in a book. We are reminded that even as the world totters towards the twenty-first century, the pursuit of forbidden knowledge is persistently perceived as heresy.
Evocative of the wonder rooms and magic lantern shows of another age, Purcell's own imaginative act of subversion proposes we look closely at the mirror's other side. "In between the monstrous and ourselves," Purcell writes, "we have constructed many walls . . . Through the centuries Western scholars have cited hairiness, darkness, smallness, imperfect rational skills as justification for questioning the eligibility of those possessing these traits for membership in the human race . . . The issue in the study of anomalies is always one of classification--of perspective, scale, and the deep, inherited 'misseeing' of the anomalous fictional creature and the genuine anomalous human being, which goes on and on."

I wish to end this brief review with a reference to Jennifer Miller, a contemporary "Bearded Lady" and a New Yorker who refuses to be victimized by her condition and who calls herself a "transgressive performer."

"I live in a very liminal place," she says. "It is a lovely place. In the theater it's when the lights go out and before the performance begins."

This is what Rosamond Purcell proposes: that when the lights go on and the "special case" appears before us, we dare share that liminal space and embrace the marvelous diversity of what the great dreamer of monstrosity, Jorge Luis Borges, called:

"The unique human species."

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998

Lord of Dark Places

Lord of Dark Places by Hal Bennett

Hal Bennett
Turtle Point Press ($14.95)

by Daniel Garrett

Hal Bennett's Lord of Dark Places, originally published by W. W. Norton in 1970 and recently restored to print, is many things: a twentieth century novel; a biography of a young sex god; a family drama involving self-sacrifice, betrayal, and incest; a document of black American migration from the rural south to the urban north; a story of the 1950s and 60s with civil rights legislation and Vietnam as touchstones; a spiritual journal; a crime drama and murder mystery; an episodic tale of transgressive social relations, including interracial friendship and a bisexual ménage à trois. It is also satirically funny, perversely sexy, and subversively philosophical.

The book's main character is Joe Market, whose life we follow from age twelve to thirty. Joe's grandfather Roosevelt is lynched and castrated by southern white men for winking at a white woman, and Joe's father Titus spends part of his own youth masturbating while reading the Book of Solomon—race and sex are part of Joe's family background and constitute the more troubling parts of American history. Titus starts a new religion with Joe as its principal icon, the Naked Child. Although Titus thinks most religions are basically designed to make the approach of death less scary, he thinks that the naked black male and his phallus will be an affirmation of blackness and a repudiation of the self-negation of Christianity. Titus preaches, Joe undresses—and for a special donation Joe touches individual members of the congregation. Titus tells Joe, "Always give in when you're tempted. That way, you'll never have problems with your conscience." As the years pass, Joe realizes that sex is all he knows how to do. However, in light of outrageous racism and economic necessity, Joe continues with Titus and his traveling show of religion and sex.

Every novel contains several stories, several themes, and in this one certain stories most exemplify the predominant aspects of Joe's life, American history, and this novel. These stories focus on race and sex, intraracial betrayal, national politics and war, interracial conflict followed by understanding, and the evolution of married love. The first of these emblematic stories is short, but so rawly sexual and indicative of differing social status that it is a primal scene, richly symbolic: Joe walks in a new neighborhood and sees a house and yard fenced and locked, with a sign barring blacks, dogs, and Catholics. A hateful, lusty white woman has been locked in by her father. She sees Joe, takes down the sign, and through intimidation forces him to fuck her through the fence (she threatens him, using racial difference, and his fear hardens his penis). Joe finds that white genitalia is no different from black. After sex, the woman puts the sign back up and goes into the house.

The second thematic development is of a father's betrayal. Joe and Titus engage a whore with whom Titus becomes infatuated. Titus, suspicious of Joe's ongoing interest in the whore/wife, decides to alert the police to Joe, but Titus is himself arrested and sexually assaulted by them.

Joe escapes to the north, where he hustles sex without religion. By the time he's twenty, he decides that the difference between north and south is that northern whites are sneakier. Joe does meet one white man he can trust, and this is the third story. A young Italian policeman encourages Joe to get an education and the two become friends. They talk, drink, smoke grass, and sleep with women together. This genuine friendship--rooted in a sense that each is a human being and capable of growth, surprise, loyalty--is what is available when people choose to perceive and act in unexpected ways.

The fourth story deals with Joe's time in Vietnam, in which he understands that America treats much of the world the way it treats blacks. He realizes that the basic conflict in society is not between races, sexes, or erotic orientations, but between people and government. The final story follows Joe's marriage to a mother-dominated classmate who moves from weakness and sexual thralldom to independence, forcing Joe to accept this. Through these various narratives, Joe moves from ignorance to knowledge, from lust to celibacy to love, from spiritual arrogance to spiritual humility, and from lawlessness to confession and atonement.

The novel is a classic picaresque tale, full of adventure and wit. It can be compared to Stendahl's The Red and the Black, also about the professional and erotic careers of a young man, and to Bocaccio's The Decameron, as well as to more recent titles by D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, and James Purdy. It also joins a canon of fiercely intelligent African-American novels focusing on individuals who struggle to claim their complete heritage—of identity, relationships, multi-cultural community, and meaning. These novels include Wallace Thurman's Infants of the Spring, on the Harlem Renaissance and black bohemian life, Richard Wright's The Outsider, with a black male existential intellectual protagonist, James Baldwin's Another Country, Toni Morrison's Tar Baby, and Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, as well as particular works by David Bradley, Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Percival Everett, Ishmael Reed, and Alice Walker. If Hal Bennett is not usually mentioned in this broader context it is likely because of his long exile in Mexico, and his own critical and cavalier regard for society and tradition.

Bennett is as casually transgressive in speech as he is pointedly transgressive in his work. About black people: "We feel unclean as a racial group. That might be a sense of physical filth." About black writers: "I can only mention two or three black writers . . . I don't know all of them, nor do I read all of them." About James Baldwin: "What I'm trying to do is be a counterpoise to James Baldwin. He is trying to be a conscience. I'm trying to undo the sense of being a conscience." About Ralph Ellison: "You know, I've never felt invisible. I deny his basic premise." About Ernest J. Gaines: "Look, in Miss Jane Pittman, her act is to go out and drink at the water fountain. No I want large rebellion. If I'm going to have rebellion, I want it large. I don't want it misinterpreted as seeming small or sneaky." (Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1987)

Clearly, Bennett's rebellion is large and Lord of Dark Places is a major novel. One answers an affirmative yes to most of the questions of import that can be asked about it. Is this book beautifully, imaginatively, thoughtfully written? Yes. Does it have great, eccentric characters, full of energy, ideas, sex, and truth? Yes. Does it tell significant stories about the country and world out of which it comes? Yes. And the meaning and pleasure it provides are destined to last.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 1, Spring (#9) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998