Sue Coe, whom critic Donald Kuspit has called “the greatest living practitioner of a confrontational, revolutionary art,” continues the tradition of socially engaged pictorial expression long associated with the Galerie St. Etienne. One of the most important artists to emerge from New York’s East Village “scene” in the early 1980s, she has since amassed a weighty dossier of reviews and articles (including a cover story in Artnews), as well as an equally impressive exhibition history. Her work has been featured in over a dozen one-woman shows here and in Great Britain, countless group presentations, three monographs, and an award-winning television documentary. It may also be found in numerous major collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Arts Council of Great Britain. Although a retrospective, Police State, was recently seen at seven museums throughout the United States, Coe has not had a one-person exhibition in Manhattan since 1985, and the first comprehensive showing of her Porkopolis series (under way for the past two years) has thus been eagerly anticipated.
Born in Tamworth (Staffordshire), England, and educated at the Royal College of Art in London, Sue Coe came to New York in 1972 to pursue a career as an illustrator. Becoming a “fine” artist, she recalls, was not a serious option for a working-class woman such as herself. England’s rigid class structure has sensitized Coe politically, but she only became conscious of the subliminal social statements in her work when it was repeatedly rejected by editors and art directors. Despite an enviable publication history (her drawings have appeared in such periodicals as Rolling Stone, Newsday, the New York Times Op-Ed page), her refusal to compromise made it impossible for her to find full employment as an illustrator. Thus left with free time on her hands, Coe was able to concentrate on the content of her work, a luxury she could not otherwise have afforded.
In 1974, Coe began her first independent pictorial series, on the Ku Klux Klan. The opportunity, not only to set her own agenda, but to study a given topic in depth, opened up a whole new world to her. Melding the communicative skills of the journalist with the breadth and scale of the fine artist, Coe forged a unique expressive idiom. A cartoonist’s flair for the telling symbol—a dollar sign to equal greed, skulls and vermin for evil—was combined with exquisitely rendered glimpses of the human condition. Text—often clipped and pasted in, ransom-note style—was incorporated to drive her message home. The words were necessary, Coe explains, to smooth over art’s inherent ambiguities and transform it into an organizing tool. Books, under the circumstances, proved an ideal outlet, and some of her most powerful series, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (1983) and X (on Malcolm X; 1986), found a wide audience in this manner. Publication in newspapers, magazines or books is Coe’s way of keeping the lines of communication open, reaching a public that would never venture into the rarified realm of a gallery or museum.
The Porkopolis series—an ongoing examination of the meat industry that will probably require another three years for completion—sums up many of the individual causes Coe has addressed in the past, including such far-ranging issues as genetic engineering, animal research, intensive farming, labor conditions in meat processing plants, and environmental pollution. Essentially, the artist believes that humankind’s cruelty to itself devolves from its cruelty to what are perceived as “lower” life forms. Unless the interconnectedness of all living creatures is recognized, such sweeping evils as racism and sexism can never be redressed.
Porkopolis, differing in some respects from Coe’s earlier work, represents an important developmental breakthrough for the artist. Often before she has borne witness, not just to situations that journalism tends to suppress, but to events that no journalist could ever see: the so-called suicides of South-African detainees, for example, or the infamous New Bedford rape. In the Porkopolis pictures, however, firsthand observation is central to the artist’s approach (she has to date visited some fifteen slaughterhouses and meat packing plants), and perhaps as a result, the images have a more palpable physical presence. We are no longer confronting symbols, but reality. Similarly, text, though still important, is not an integral part of the pictures; pushed into the margins, it serves as a matter-of-fact commentary, all the more moving for the absence of rhetoric. There is no need to proselytize—the images speak for themselves, and if they are, as a result, somewhat ambiguous, the mystery is intentional. “This is not like a telegram,” Coe declares, “it is part of an ongoing search for meaning.”