Serial killer art
Serial killer art can be divided into two major categories: (1) works of art about serial killers, and (2) works of art by serial killers.
To start with the latter: the best known of all serial killer artists was John Wayne Gacy, who began dabbling in oil painting while in prison. Though Gacy painted everything from Disney characters to Michelangelo’s Piet?, his trademark subject was Pogo the Clown—the persona he adopted during his prearrest years, when he would occasionally don circus makeup and entertain the kids at the local hospital. Gacy’s amateurish oils could be had for a pittance a decade ago, but their value increased as they became trendy collectibles among certain celebrities, like film director John Waters and actor Johnny Depp. Since Gacy’s execution, the price for his paintings has shot even higher. While some of his oils are explicitly creepy (like his so-called Skull Clown paintings), even his most “innocent”—like his depictions of Disney’s Seven Dwarves—have an ineffable malevolence to them.
For a while, Gacy’s exclusive art dealer was the Louisiana funeral director and serial killer enthusiast Rick Staton (see The Collector). Under Staton’s encouragement, a number of other notorious murderers have taken up prison arts and crafts. Staton—who started a company called Grindhouse Graphics to market this work and has staged a number of Death Row Art Shows in New Orleans—has represented a wide range of quasicreative killers, including Richard “Night Stalker” Ramirez (who does crude but intensely spooky ballpoint doodles); Charles Manson (who specializes in animals sculpted from his old socks); and Elmer Wayne Henley. Henley—who, along with his buddy Dean Corll, was responsible for the torture-murder of as many as thirty-two young men likes to paint koala bears.
As devoted as he is to promoting the work of these people, even Staton concedes that they possess no artistic talent. There are a couple of exceptions, however. Lawrence Bittaker—who mutilated and murdered five teenage girls—produces some truly original pop-up greeting cards. The most gifted of the bunch, however, is William Heirens, the notorious “Lipstick Killer,” who has been in prison since 1946 and who paints exquisitely detailed watercolors.
As far as serious art goes (i.e., art about, not by, serial killers), painters have been dealing with horrific sex crimes since at least the nineteenth century. The Victorian artist Walter Sickert, for example, did such disturbing pictures of murdered prostitutes that crime writer Patricia Cornwell has accused him of being Jack the Ripper. Scholars have also discovered that, in addition to the post-Impressionist landscapes and still lifes he’s best known for, Paul C?zanne did a whole series of paintings and drawings depicting grisly sex crimes.
Throughout the twentieth century, hideous murder often appears as a subject of serious art. In The Threatened Assassin, a 1926 painting by Surrealist Ren? Magritte, a bowler-hatted man wields a clublike human limb while a nude woman lies bleeding in the background. Even more unsettling is Frida Kahlo’s 1935 A Few Small Nips, in which a gore-drenched killer, clutching a knife, stands at the bedside of his savaged girlfriend. In 1966, the German postmodern painter Gerhard Richter caused an uproar when he displayed his Eight Student Nurses, realistic portraits of Richard Speck’s victims, based on their yearbook photos. That controversy was minor, however, compared to the outcry provoked in 1997, when a highly publicized British art show included Marcus Harvey’s Myra—an enormous portrait of the notorious Moors Murderer created from the handprints of children.
Of all serial murder paintings produced in the twentieth century, probably the greatest are those by Otto Dix, the famous German Expressionist who was obsessed with images of sadistic sexual mutilation and produced a series of extraordinary canvases on the subject. His contemporary George Grosz (who posed as Jack the Ripper in a famous photographic self-portrait) also created a number of works about sex-related killings, including the harrowing Murder on Acker Street, which depicts a cretinous killer scrubbing his hands after decapitating a woman, whose horribly mangled corpse occupies the center of the picture. (If you’re interested in a brilliant study of sexual murder in Weimar Germany—which reproduces several dozen works by Dix and Grosz—check out the 1995 book Lustmord by Harvard professor Maria Tartar.)
The spiritual heir of Dix and Grosz is Joe Coleman, America’s preeminent painters of serial killers. Coleman’s work has inspired a number of younger artists, including the young Brooklyn painter Michael Rose, whose subjects range from religious martyrdoms to grisly accidents to the atrocities of Albert Fish. Another Brooklyn artist, Chris Pelletiere, has done a series of stunning portraits of some of America’s most notorious killers, including Charles Starkweather, Henry Lee Lucas, and Ed Gein.
Finally, there is the well-known Pop surrealist Peter Saul. Now in his sixties, Saul has been offending sensibilities for the past three decades with canvases like Donald Duck Descending a Staircase, Puppy in an Electric Chair, and Bathroom Sex Murder. Rendered in a garish, cartoony style, Saul’s recent paintings of serial killers—which include grotesque depictions of John Wayne Gacy’s execution and Jeffrey Dahmer’s eating habits—are among his most electrifying works.
The Apocalyptic Art of Joe Coleman
America’s premier painter of serial killers, Joe Coleman is also the only significant artist ever to perform as a geek. Indeed, one of his most powerful self-portraits—Portrait of Professor Momboozoo—shows the crucified Coleman with a bitten-off rat’s head jutting from his mouth. Like so much of Coleman’s work, it’s an astounding image, one that sums up three of the major themes of his art: horror, sideshow sensationalism, and (insofar as devouring the body and blood of a rodent represents a grotesque parody of the Last Supper) religious obsession.
Coleman was born on 11/22/55—a date (as he likes to point out) full of doubles, prefiguring his own fascination with linked dualities: sinner and saint, heaven and hell, corruption and purity, killer and victim. Growing up across from a cemetery and steeped in Catholicism, he developed an early fascination with death and disease, suffering and sacrifice. His childhood imagination was also shaped by two books: the Bible (particularly its juicier stories of sex and violence) and a volume on Hieronymus Bosch, whose teeming, demonic dreamscapes made a profound impression on Coleman’s budding artistic sensibility.
Indeed, though Coleman is often classified under the ever-so-slightly disparaging category of “naive” or “outsider” artist, his work falls into a mainstream tradition that extends from such medieval painters as Bosch and Breughel to modern German Expressionists like Dix and Grosz. It’s also true, however, that—as accomplished and sophisticated as Coleman’s paintings are—there is, in his densely textured, meticulously detailed style, a distinctly folk-art quality. He is, in short, a complete original, an all-American delineator of the darkest recesses of the soul. If Bosch had coupled with Grandma Moses, their unholy offspring would have been Joe Coleman.
In the festering landscape of Coleman’s art, legendary serial killers like Carl Panzram and Charles Manson become mad visionaries, driven by a savage need to rip away the comforting illusions of conventional society and expose the terrible realities of existence: random horror, inexorable death. Coleman is quick to point out that his paintings are self-portraits, and the same ferocious drive is evident everywhere in his work. He uses his paint-brush like a vivisectionist’s scalpel, to penetrate to the bloody innards, the guts of existence. Beneath our skins, his art seems to say, we are nothing but blood, shit, and phlegm, with a latent tumor undoubtedly lurking somewhere in our cells. But there is another element, too, one that redeems his work from sheer morbidity: the belief, or at least the hope, that if he penetrates far enough, he will discover something much deeper—the soul.
As one critic has commented, Joe Coleman has put the pain back in painting. But his work blazes with power and meaning. For those unfamiliar with it, we strongly recommend his book Cosmic Retribution (Fantagraphic Books, 1992)—the only art volume (so far as we know) with an enthusiastic jacket blurb by Charles Manson. More recent examples of his paintings can be found in Original Sin (Heck Editions, 1997) and The Book of Joe (La Luz de Jesus Press, 2003).