Babies in Jars, Death Masks, and Ponytails: My Induction to the Odditorium

A seven-inch piece of my hair was recently inducted into the one-of-a-kind crime exhibition New York artist Joe Coleman has spent much of his life assembling.

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Aug 13 2015, 4:00am

Joe Coleman, left, introducing the author to his Odditorium in Brooklyn. Photos by Petra Szabo

Joe Coleman walks among us, hairy and intense, a collector of entire lives and worlds. I recognize the urge, having myself collected toy cars, old pulps, shiny minerals, and rave fliers. Some of these hoards survived my ten years and three months as a ward of New York State's prisons, safe in my parents' garage. Now cured, I've been selling them off on eBay since my release.

Seven inches of my hair, braided and secured at both of the ponytail's ends, was recently inducted into the one-of-a-kind collection Coleman has spent much of his life assembling. The astonishing exhibition, known as the Odditorium, displays things that speak to an unconventional set of interests, morals, and needs—Coleman considers it a shrine to the margins of Americana. Whether he's a curator or high priest, Coleman's mission is to give the voiceless their say. The exploitation of birth defects, body-altering illnesses, and morbid curiosity is hallowed and storied, but Coleman overturns this macabre voyeurism by letting the "losers of history" speak for themselves. The result is insightful at times, jarring at others, and never even close to dull.

My own ponytail was a more poignant way of illustrating the years I lost than a pile of calendars or slashes on a wall, having been recorded in my body's cells.

It was in prison that I learned to transcend my addiction to things because I wasn't allowed to have many. Before being plucked from my regular existence at the age of 25, I collected a library of 3,000 books that served as an external registry of my intellectual development (and allowances blown). But New York State convicts are allowed just 25 books and 14 magazines at a time. Suffice it to say my tenure as a gentleman-librarian was put on hold once I was sentenced, though I did work as an assistant in four jailhouse collections, each approximating my own lost database—without the leather and gilt.

Upon my release, unboxing the books was an exercise in nostalgia veering toward mockery. The advent of Kindles and Google had sapped all value and purpose from my collection of classics. Only symbols matter today, like the URL leading to the Memoirs of Casanova that I once tracked down in an unexpurgated 1928 edition. Perhaps that is why a physical thing, like the old ponytail Coleman inducted into his Odditorium, must also have symbolic value to remain important in our digital world; the hair I sent home in 2010 was not just seven inches long, but seven years old—or seven Christmases sad.

Coleman inducting the author's hair into his Odditorium

The name of the Odditorium is a nod to the portmanteau moniker used by the installation's many 19th-century predecessors. The exhibits are approached with reverence rather than an eye to profit—even if Coleman's waxwork opium addicts, death masks of guillotined murderers, and adopted son Junior (a deformed baby in a jar) all graduated to being elements of an artwork after lying in the shadows of carnivals. Junior was neglected and out of fashion, sipping formaldehyde in a rotting Coney Island attraction, when Coleman felt compelled to rescue him. Today, the jar in which the misshapen baby was preserved long ago has a well-lit shelf of its own. There's a small chance Junior is actually a "bouncer," as the wax or gutta-percha re-creations (created to avoid the law against moving bodies between states) were called.

At a time when gawking at the varieties of our fellow men was deemed wholesome fun, the new arena of cinema's appetite for the lurid was but an extension of society's frank taste for the morbid. The pinheads, Siamese twins, and other performers who acted in 1932's Freaks were served up as objects to a curious (and paying) audience. Today, the concept is disgusting: Fondling the costume of Johnny Eck, Amazing Half-Boy, I decided it was tragedy I was feeling—the anguish of the human zoo animal. His outfit is a relic central to the Odditorium.

I was not the first to make the mistake of applying contemporary values to another world. The sequined shirt was Johnny's favorite and most expensive possession. He adored performing—condemned to walking on his hands at waist level, it was only on a stage that he could expect genuine eye contact. (He had feet and legs, they were just useless and shrunken, and he'd hide them beneath clothes—and yes, he did have genitals.)

Across the hall, an elaborate reliquary shelters a ghastly mummified arm bone. This was a piece of a saint and had been officially deemed holy. In medieval times, the skeletons of people chosen by others as exceedingly good were believed to cure the ill and never rot. But that nasty tibia didn't hold a candle to the half-boy's half-shirt.

If nothing else, these exhibits beg a few questions: How do we choose what to worship? What is holy and good? What's bad? Isn't this ugly? And what was my ponytail doing in here?

On the far side of the Odditorium hangs an original letter from Albert Fish, a notorious murderer and cannibal electrocuted to death in 1934. Coleman appreciates the terrifying contrast between Fish's benevolent and elderly appearance with the atrocities this bogeyman committed. Coleman showed me a glaring cognitive dissonance in the text, corresponding with as wide a gap between our actions and words: Fish isn't troubled freely admitting to having snatched, tortured, cooked, and eaten dozens of children. But the "Brooklyn Vampire" emphatically denied raping the young girl he dined on, claiming "she died pure."

Fish, like Coleman, was a Catholic living under the rules of a Catholic subculture. Unlike Coleman, he believed himself to be a good Catholic as he understood the church—and therefore was arguably symbolic of all that was wrong with it and what Coleman believes is selective morality on the part of the faithful. Coleman fights against a world in which Albert Fish is blamed and fried, while other Sinners are left to go about their business.

Coleman, whose wit can be appreciated as long as your stomach is strong, also displays the rather kooky Feejee Mermaid. (Even PT Barnum never asserted their authenticity.) Having only read about the chimeras, which were made by sewing the top half of a monkey to the nether portion of a fish, it was a delight to hold a real one in my hands. To sate the Western world's endless appetite for curiosities was a cottage industry in the Far East not unlike the fanciful taxidermy of states like Arkansas, where Jackalopes can be found. (Coleman has a two-headed version, in keeping with his twin obsession.) Twirling a villain's whisker, Coleman opined that his bi-cephalic beasts, pickled punks, and lifesize waxwork OJ Simpson all demonstrate the relativity of things.

In other words, impression matters, but the truth is for lawyers.

Coleman in his element

Coleman began to doubt his way beyond good and evil when he began to doubt his faith. As a god-fearing boy in Norwalk, Connecticut, he witnessed his beloved church shun his own mother for divorcing. When she wasn't allowed to receive Communion, Coleman rejected his own slice of the body of Christ. He never looked back, and the the Odditorium is heavy on bodies of Man, and infused with a sort of anti-Catholic fervor. Most are wax, though there's also plenty of hair, and not just mine. (Charles Manson sent some creepy strands along with a striking letter.) Nevertheless, after an arcane induction ceremony recorded for posterity, my own ponytail joined the display.

I was once dubbed the "Apologetic Bandit" for the spree of hapless and amateur robberies I committed during the worst week of my two-year heroin addiction. Now I share a shelf with the Stetson of "Wild Bill" Carlisle. He hasn't worn it since his passing in 1964, but was once well-known enough that tourists traveled to his motel in Wyoming for the pleasure of his proximity. Indeed, the "Robin Hood of the Rails" is often said to be one of the last outlaws to rob trains in the Wild West. Legend has it that he tipped porters and abstained from taking the valuables of women, children, and servicemen during his hold-ups, but Bill served 17 years for his crimes.

I served ten, apologies be damned. But while I may have been wanted for the four months between the crimes and my 2003 arrest, unlike Bill, it wasn't quite "dead or alive."

Like most outlaws, Coleman wore a disguise when he played an outlandish character named Doctor Momboozo on the counter-cultural stages of the 1980s. Booze-O was a neighborhood nickname of Coleman's father, and he brought them back together in his act while wearing a costume with an outer layer of raw pork and, beneath it, a vest that "exploded." Shooting off the fireworks, gun powder, and smoke bombs got Coleman arrested, but the cops weren't sure what to charge him with. (He still has a record for "possession of an infernal device.") Having been found guilty of buying human souls myself, law enforcement's belief in a hellish machine seems plausible. Today, Coleman's forays in the field of geekery would trigger animal rights alarms; after all, his artistic expression required rodent sacrifice. The life of a geek, as any carny can tell you, is light on nerdiness and hard on animals.

The punk artist's punk artist, Coleman bit the heads off rats in the name of transgressive art. Mingling with the extreme set led by G.G. Allin, Coleman traveled to Budapest and away from American law, autopsying his fellow creatures. He's released music with his band The Steel Tips and quit drugs without finding religion. Coleman has also written books and acted in film—he has a fan in Asia Argento, Dario's daughter, who took a first forbidden peek of Coleman in her father's library. (Now she casts him in her bloody films.) William Burroughs asked Coleman to draw his beloved hobos, and the UK's most violent convict, Charles Bronson, adopted the artist into his makeshift "family," even though Coleman is not a prisoner. Charles Manson, meanwhile, made a study of the images Coleman sent him at Corcoran Maximum Security Prison in California. (In response, Charlie dubbed Coleman "Caveman in a Spaceship," the apt description nestled in the frightening letter Manson sent to the Odditorium.)

Coleman's paintings, meanwhile, refuse a category. Neither Folk Art, Outsider Art, or even Outlaw Art are apt descriptors, as Coleman managed to secure rarefied patronage of the famous, rich, and marginal. Coleman's sales have reached a quarter of a million dollars, an exciting day at Sotheby's in his telling. Flipping through the Odditorium's guest book, I saw Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, and John Waters had sat in the same chair as me. To join an elite cohort of clients, which also includes Jim Jarmusch and Iggy Pop, requires patience and longevity—and there's a list, as Coleman spends years on each painting.

Obsessively filling a canvas to the bitter end using a one-haired brush and magnifying jeweler's glasses takes Coleman as much as four years. He uses calligraphic script to tell the images' tales right on his paintings, explaining each symbol with dry wit and charismatic misspellings. He also weaves in ephemera particular to the thinking behind an image; the elements have run the gamut from a murder victim's clothing to scabs from his body to stained sheets to AA batteries. The works are called "multimedia" in catalogues and "fucking awesome" most everywhere else. The range of mediums beyond paint used on his diptychs and pseudo-icons bring them to the edge of the realm of objects. Still, they are possible to reproduce in two dimensions—Coleman has put out several luscious albums, but next year they will be outdone with a tombstone-sized slab of published luxury cataloguing almost all of Coleman's art...in full size. The trick will be achieved with fold-out plates; for those of us who can afford neither the originals nor reproductions, a companion volume of his miniatures will be available in a size one can steal. Don't worry: Most of Coleman's subjects would have done the same; some might have gone on to murder the bookshop's clerks, and others to eat them. Coleman won't tell, as he deals in symbols, and books are but things we can usually live without.

Johnny Eck's outfit in the Odditorium. Photo courtesy Joe Coleman

Would pinching Johnny Eck's sleeve matter to me if I didn't know who wore it (and missed the waist)? Coleman agreed that it would not. Is the truth in the captions? Clearly art is much more than that, as is the Odditorium.

Still, Coleman is speaking for the junkies, sexual deviants, and serial killers of history. His mission is to give these mute members of humanity a chance to be heard. They've only been talked about for so long. Coleman has also said—without stuttering, I may add—that society gets the criminals it deserves. They are represented in the Odditorium: the sinners as well as the saints, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

They are all there for visitors to figure out just who we deserve. Maybe it's me.

Follow Daniel Genis on Twitter.

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