Sue Coe, one of the most committed activist artists in America, has during her thirty-five-year career charted an idiosyncratic course through an environment that is at best ambivalent toward art with overt socio-political content. Although many early modernists were political progressives, their opposition to bourgeois pictorial norms prompted them to create a personal visual language that was often incomprehensible, if not downright offensive, to the masses. Modernism’s intrinsic elitism made it easy for the movement to be co-opted by the upper classes, establishing a lingering gulf between “high” art and other, more accessible forms of visual expression. At the same time, however, modern capitalism engendered a visually saturated environment, in which readily intelligible images became essential to the processes of selling, educating, informing and indoctrinating. When Coe arrived in New York from her native England in 1972, she faced a choice between an arcane gallery scene and mundane editorial illustration. Initially, in both economic and artistic terms, illustration seemed the superior option: It offered a more secure income and a means to reach a broader audience.
The story is often told of how Coe, figuratively fresh off the boat, landed on the doorstep of the New York Times with a few dollars in her pocket and immediately secured her first illustration assignment for the Magazine. Although the Vietnam War was still raging, the press was beginning to take its watchdog responsibilities seriously. The Times had just published the Pentagon Papers, Watergate was on the horizon, and art director J. C. Saurés was turning the Op-Ed Page into a showcase for inventive political illustration. In the early 1970s, the press seemed to offer an ideal refuge for a young artist with leftist leanings. Yet Coe soon began to chafe at the constraints imposed by even friendly art directors and sometimes less friendly editors. Censorship squabbles came and went. Equally problematic was the necessity of working on tight deadlines and according to externally imposed agendas. Coe believed that the burning issues of the day were too complex to be summarized in single images. Increasingly, she began to pursue independent work.
By the late 1970s, Coe had established her characteristic habit of exploring subjects through extended sequences of drawings. In 1983, with the publication of her first book, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, and a solo show at the recently founded P-P-O-W Gallery in New York’s East Village, she secured two important new outlets for her work. Although books and exhibitions allowed Coe to investigate topics at her own pace and to develop pathways to different audiences, she continued to supplement her income by doing editorial illustration. Nineteen-eighty-six saw the publication of X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X), while the following year a traveling retrospective, Police State, was accompanied by a portfolio-catalogue that contained reproductions of her most important work to date. In a style reminiscent of George Grosz and John Heartfield, Coe lambasted racism and the injustices of the Reagan era.
Coe’s attempt to maintain a presence in the three parallel realms of books, illustration and fine art was not without its problems. All three arenas are, to varying degrees, subject to market forces, and Coe’s work is not exactly an easy sell. Furthermore, Coe was exquisitely sensitive to situations that could impart even the slightest suggestion of political compromise, such as a 1994 retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, or her brief relationship, in the mid ‘90s, with The New Yorker, where the artist’s hard-hitting pictorial exposés were juxtaposed with Calvin Klein and Mercedes ads. When Coe did not herself withdraw from such situations (as she eventually did from The New Yorker), her work nevertheless often failed to fit comfortably within the predefined parameters of her chosen outlets. Coe, after all, is an artist, not a writer, and books invariably entail imposing some sort of structure on an originally loose medley of images, as well as crafting a text that does not undermine the art. Coe’s desire to reach a wide audience causes her to favor older realist traditions over the more obscure postmodernist idiom employed by most contemporary artists. Thus, even when the art scene became politicized in the 1990s, Coe never received the attention accorded such artists as Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, who spoke the art-world’s language. Despite an extremely lengthy resumé, Coe by her own choice remains just slightly off the art-world’s radar screen.
Coe’s decisions about how her work is presented to the public have direct bearing on the nature of the work itself: Is it illustration? Cartooning? Fine art? Or some nameless amalgam of all three? Coe has said that her goal is to bear witness to the hidden suffering that underlies our lives of apparent ease and plenty. She has conducted exhaustive research in places that few of us ever see—AIDS wards, night court, slaughterhouses, factory farms—but she is not a reporter or pictorial journalist in any conventional sense. First of all, some things really are off-limits or have to be imaginatively reconstructed from piecemeal documentation: biotech labs, for example, or shipwrecks at sea. To depict ideas such as genetic engineering and globalization, Coe has recourse to the cartoonist’s tools of symbolism and caricature. But ultimately, to evoke the desired emotional response, she must create masterful compositions that combine compassionate observation with dramatic narrative sweep. If the work does not function first and foremost as art, Coe believes, then the road inward to its content will be blocked.
From the outset of her career, the content of Coe’s work has revolved around injustice, but for close to twenty years her primary subject has been animals. In a world beset by rampant cruelty to humans, Coe’s focus on animals frequently surprises even sympathetic observers. Coe claims she chose animals because she wanted to give these mute victims a voice, but that explanation seems at best incomplete. Precisely because it is so rampant and geographically dispersed, human suffering can appear virtually ungraspable. Although Coe’s examination of apartheid in her South Africa series was masterful, the images lacked the visceral realism of observed experience. On the other hand, Coe did not want to become mired in the specificity of human genocide, migrating randomly from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur. Her chief concern was what she saw as the central calamity of modern existence: global capitalism and its treatment of living beings as expendable commodities. This thesis, she felt, was clearly expressed in the widespread abuse of farm and research animals, and in the environmental degradation, food contamination and worker exploitation abetted by the meat industry. Furthermore, this concealed industry exists right in our midst. The interaction between industry and animals could be directly observed by the artist, and it affects everyone on the planet. For Sue Coe, animals became the single subject that encompassed all subjects.
Sheep of Fools (a pun on Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth-century catalogue of human vices, Ship of Fools) is Coe’s third cohesive body of work devoted to animal subject matter. Her first and to date most extensive such series was Porkopolis, encompassing a ten-year investigation of factory farms and slaughterhouses. Beginning with pigs but eventually expanding to include cows, goats, sheep and poultry, this series was published in 1996 under the title Dead Meat. Coe’s adoption of an abandoned pit bull helped inspire her next book, Pit’s Letter (2000), a novella about vivisection that traced various connections between human and animal abuse. Sheep of Fools is a direct outgrowth of Coe’s two preceding series. Comprising a number of short pictorial cycles that include Ghost Sheep, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Fowl Plague, The Man with No Heart and Run!, Coe’s latest drawings combine the sort of direct observation perfected in Porkopolis with constructed narratives reminiscent of Pit’s Letter. As a group, the disparate Sheep vignettes have a cumulative effect, but unlike the Pit drawings, they reach no overarching conclusion. While Sheep of Fools deals with profoundly disturbing events, the artist maintains a relatively light editorial touch, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves.
Although Sheep of Fools exists on a continuum with Coe’s prior animal work, it also reflects changes in her professional orientation. Shortly after publishing Pit’s Letter, the artist left Manhattan to move permanently to upstate New York, where she had for some years maintained a summer cabin. The resultant reduction in living expenses made it possible for her to give up editorial illustration and devote herself full-time to independent artwork. Moving to the country also immersed Coe in aspects of nature and farming that she previously had experienced only as a visitor. In 2002, she began an extremely congenial relationship with the alternative magazine Blab!, which unlike more mainstream publications, places no restrictions of form or content on her work. Working with Blab! and the writer Judith Brody, she has been able to conduct preliminary explorations of subjects, such as those now subsumed within the Sheep of Fools series, to see if they merit deeper investigation. Testing her work before an audience, through publication as well as by giving regular public lectures, is the principal way that Coe hones her message and grows as an artist and as a human being.
Sheep of Fools originated with a brief news clipping about the sinking of a shipful of sheep bound from Australia to Jordan. Coe was struck by the fact that the clipping listed only one (human) casualty and made scant mention of the fact that over 60,000 sheep had also lost their lives. Coe’s attempt to visualize that tragedy resulted in the cycle Ghost Sheep, published in Blab! in 2002. However, the artist remained fascinated with the stories behind the story. The live transport of sheep (and also cattle) from agricultural centers like Australia to the Middle East has become a huge business in the last thirty years, because Islam requires that animals be slaughtered locally according to religious ritual. Yet the animal mortality rate on such transports hovers around 10%, and often the sheep arrive in such miserable shape that the ports refuse to accept them. Coe was curious, too, about what the ships brought back after unloading their animal cargo. (Contraband? No one would say.) She noted that the wool industry, centuries ago, contributed to England’s rise as a world power, and that the use of underpaid immigrant labor aboard ship and in Middle-Eastern slaughterhouses is today part of a widespread effort to shift work away from unionized industrial countries. Whereas the pigs of Porkopolis were farmed and slaughtered locally, sheep, in Coe’s view, are global animals, intimately connected to international trends in commerce and labor. Gradually, Ghost Sheep morphed into the book-length Sheep of Fools.
Dead Meat took ten years to find its way into print, but Sheep of Fools is being published only three years after Coe began researching the subject. As a result, she sees this publication as the beginning, rather than the end of a new project. Even as she prepared her book, related subjects inevitably caught her attention. Fowl Plague focuses on avian influenza, which is emblematic of the way industrialized farming in a global environment exacerbates the linkage between animal and human disease. A story in the local paper about a farmer who starved his livestock through neglect inspired the cycle The Man with No Heart. Similarly, Run! reflects the artist’s encounters with local deer hunters. Life in the country has also engendered a deeper attraction to natural materials. Coe has begun making woodcuts, savoring the grain and texture of the wood. Using paper handmade by the artist Eric Avery from the wool of rescued sheep, she has done monoprints based on her sheep sketches. And of course Coe did not to fail to respond to the war in Iraq. Bully, published shortly before the 2004 election, was a send-up of what the artist sees as the Bush administration’s worst failings. Abu Graib inspired several searing woodcuts, while Coe’s Weapons of Mass Destruction series manages to locate the “missing” WMDS: in the AIDS pandemic, the armaments industry and the death penalty
Over the last decades, Coe's youthful rage against human injustice has evolved into a more mature but equally impassioned desire to understand. Art, for her, is part of a learning process, as each project leads her further down the path to understanding. Convinced that capitalism inflames people’s worst competitive instincts, Coe longs for a system that would instead foster mutual cooperation and respect for one another and for other species. Though her work is often grim, she feels it is essentially optimistic. Superficially pleasing art, she says, inspires hopelessness, because people know it is not realistic. Her art, Sue Coe hopes, will suggest solutions and provoke positive change.
Copies of Sue Coe’s book Sheep of Fools (with text by Judith Brody) may be ordered from the gallery for $15.00 in hardcover. Bully: Master of the Global Merry-Go-Round (also with text by Judith Brody) is available for $18.00 in paperback. Copies of Blab! No. 13 (containing Ghost Sheep), No. 14 (containing Weapons of Mass Destruction), No. 15 (containing Fowl Plague) and No. 16 (containing Run!) can be ordered for $20.00 each. If you order by mail, please add $8.00 per publication to cover shipping and handling; New York residents, also add sales tax. Unless otherwise indicated, dimensions given in the checklist entries are those of the sheet. A separate checklist of Coe’s new prints and monoprints is available upon request