The Mystery of
by Aron Packer
Senior Specialist, Fine Art
For the third time since the start of 2019, Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will feature works by provocative contemporary artist Joe Coleman. During the Art & Design auction on Sunday, June 28, 2020, two original illustrations from Coleman’s self-published comic, The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait, circa 1980, will be offered separately (Lots 48 & 49; $3,000-5,000 each). In the Art & Design auction on June 9, 2019, Toomey & Co. previously offered four different original illustrations from the same comic that combined to realize $15,313. Earlier auctions included iconoclastic paintings that sold for two to three times their high estimates. Click here to view all Coleman records from Toomey & Co.
Overview of Artist Joe Coleman
Born in 1955, Joseph Coleman is an active American artist best known for his intricate paintings, along with illustrations, performance art, and his work as an actor. He has achieved legendary status among collectors of Outsider art, and while one may debate whether or not Coleman should be labeled as such, he is like no other, and his desire to live and celebrate the fringes on which he works, makes him a truly unique artist who defies categorization.
Coleman’s paintings can take years to complete. Working often with single hair brushes, Coleman slowly builds his compositions over time, not unlike a Medieval or Renaissance master. His subjects include the likes of renowned Outsider artist Henry Darger as well as many notorious figures, including Charles Manson and John Dillinger. A piece in the New York Times noted, “If P.T. Barnum had hired Breughel or Bosch to paint sideshow banners, they might have resembled the art of Joe Coleman.”
Coleman lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His studio and dwelling that he shares with his wife Whitney Ward is named the Odditorium. It is filled with objects from unusual museums, sideshows, and other offbeat venues.
Reflections on Coleman and The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait
While I do not know Joe Coleman well, I could say we are focused acquaintances, as we have similar interests in all kinds of art. Over the years, I have seen him making his presence felt when I have had a booth many times at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. A magnet for controversy with a keen eye, Coleman is an unapologetic artist with a bold vision.
Coleman’s attention to detail is his trademark. Everything is executed with meticulous precision. The narratives within his compositions are equally complex. This is evident in the illustrations for The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait, which is an early work for Coleman that foreshadows his increasingly complex later phase, in terms of non-linear narrative within a single artwork and his oeuvre overall.
For quite a while, I have personally been a big fan of underground comic artists like R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, and Jay Lynch among others. While Coleman’s The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait is considered post-underground in terms of its date of original publication, it is still close enough in terms of style to be associated with 1970s work. Relatively speaking, Coleman’s comic experienced more mass appeal (if one could call 2,000 copies mass appeal) when it was reproduced in 2005 by Fantagraphics in a smaller, more traditional comic book size.
The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait “is a product of a singular mind and may require multiple readings before a reader even begins to understand what is going on. The dense artwork is strange and often disturbing. Symbols are sprinkled throughout and a page of clues to help solve the mystery is offered on the last page. The disjointed story follows a number of characters, including a group of soldiers, a pack of freaks, a disembodied senator, and hostile aliens and zombies. If readers are willing, the book will take them on a Heart of Darkness–like journey through a schizophrenic vision.” — Colin Chan of Atomic Avenue
Coleman Illustrations in Art & Design on June 28, 2020
The specific lots that will be offered in Art & Design on June 28, 2020 are classic whiteboard illustrations. They are both single complete pages, with a few collage elements, which just means that Coleman changed his mind or needed to fix some element of the page.
Lot 48 has six basic panels, all backgrounded with almost a wood-grain pattern, but it is a little more manic looking than that. There are multiple devices occurring for separation of these six blocks: two cloud outlines, a black outline, a horizontal oval, a white outline, ending the page in a deep black outer space.
Lot 49 is bordered with variations on Sawtooth and Wild Goose Chase quilting patterns. Within that border, there is a nine-pane story that is more linear, starting inside a room, then shifting to right outside the house with the room in the background, and then shifting a little farther away. This is a typical comic book trope.
These two original illustrations would be a great win for any collector of underground comic art, Outsider art, or contemporary art in general.
Other Coleman Works Auctioned by Toomey & Co.
Below are four different original illustrations from The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait that Toomey & Co. Auctioneers sold in Art & Design on June 9, 2019 as well as three Coleman paintings from prior sales that achieved strong results.