Sue Coe, journalist and artist, has spent much of her life recording and disseminating information about society’s victims. Her effort has become increasingly effective in the aftermath of the Reagan/Bush era, and she is today widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s foremost political artists. Several major periodicals recently published portfolios of her drawings, and a mini-retrospective just opened at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. (It runs through June 19.) The present exhibition at the Galerie St. Etienne is then, in its broadest sense, about communicating an agenda for social change in the post cold-war environment.
Coe’s approach to art was shaped early on by her identification with the working class, and restricted economic options initially propelled her to seek a career as an illustrator. After moving to the United States from England in 1972, she almost immediately found work at such publications as The New York Times, but the editorial limitations of these commissions prompted her to pursue independent projects on the side. Even as she began to show her paintings at New York galleries in the early 1980s, the two creative avenues remained inextricably linked. Both exhibition and publication provided outlets for her extended series, such as How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (on the perils of apartheid), X (on Malcolm X) and, more recently, Porkopolis (an exposé of the American meat industry). As her reputation grew, she was increasingly able to set her own agenda with her editors, suggesting subjects such as the Night Court and Liverpool series published by The New Yorker in 1993, and the series on AIDS that appeared last month in The Village Voice. Publication allows Coe to reach an exceptionally large audience, while exhibition of the original pieces (which have been circulated widely throughout the United States and England) permits more visceral contact with the artist and her art.
Despite an underlying unity of intent, Coe’s work has undergone significant stylistic changes in the last fifteen years. She describes her early pieces--with their caricatured figures, surreal atmosphere and histrionic messages--as attempts to create “alternative headlines” to counter the right-wing tabloids. Conditioned by the simplistic arguments of cold-war propaganda, this essentially reactive orientation has no place in today’s more nuanced world. As a result, content has risen to the surface of Coe’s work, gradually eclipsing earlier stylistic affectations. Her rendering of the faces and spaces that constitute human experience has become at once more precise and more evocative. In place of her former sloganeering, the recent pictures are often accompanied by simple descriptive texts that are, somehow, all the more potent for their emotional neutrality. Nothing, says the artist, is as powerful as reality.
The Porkopolis series--which entailed visits to some twenty slaughterhouses between 1988 and 1992--marked a significant turning point in Coe’s sensibilities. Here for the first time she came face to face with humankind’s vast capacity for denial: in herself, as professional witness to the atrocities taking place; in the workers, who have to cauterize their natural emotions to survive; and most of all, in the general public, who are ill equipped to deal with the contradiction and pain entailed in the massive and needlessly cruel butchering of so many living creatures. “We’re in the midst of this waking dream called life,” Coe says, “and meanwhile, the debacle continues.” Exposing such hidden horrors, then, became her primary mission.
Certainly the mass media is not lacking in images of atrocity or suffering, but Coe believes that these reports all too often embrace despair without positing a constructive plan of action. She is, therefore, most keenly interested in providing a deeper analysis of mainstream news events, as well as in ferreting out the everyday stories the media ignores. Some of the most poignant works done in the immediate wake of the Porkopolis series are renderings of the sort of common urban scenes that are generally blocked from consciousness: men foraging for food in a dumpster outside a supermarket, women seeking shelter in the caverns of a subway station, the indigent lined up at a soup kitchen. Simple curiosity led Coe to Manhattan's courtrooms, which she had always assumed were open to the public. Much to her surprise, a judge's permission was required to get into night court, which became the focus of her next series. Those who pass through these courts are there because they cannot post bail, and the artist was struck by the direct correlation between lack of money and lack of power.
Similarly, Coe’s feeling that children are legally treated as property rather than as autonomous human beings led her to Liverpool to investigate the sensationalized murder of a toddler by two ten-year-old boys. She was searching for the story behind the screaming headlines, which attempted to demonize the perpetrators. Being familiar with Liverpool, where her mother and sister live, the artist was well qualified to record the social and economic decay that set the stage for the murder. She decries the injustice of a governmental system that, to "protect" the safety of child victims, illogically circumscribes the civil rights of child criminals, rather than redressing the true causes of crime.
Coe's latest series of works--drawn from visits to the Infectious Disease Ward at the Institute of Medical Humanities in Galveston, Texas--is her most intense exploration to date of the issues that have preoccupied her since Porkopolis: the largely unseen abuse or annihilation of the weak by an insensitive, money-oriented system. Few outsiders have ever been inside the Galveston AIDS ward, to which Coe was admitted, in a gesture of great trust, by her friend the doctor and artist Eric Avery. Once there, she encountered suffering on a scale for which, she readily admits, she was not properly prepared. In their utter helplessness, the AIDS patients achieve a kind of moral innocence that evokes for Coe the primordial beauty of humanity; to witness this beauty being destroyed is unbearable. Worse still, it is hard for the artist to imagine (as she could with the Porkopolis drawings) that her work can do much to alleviate the situation, for the doctors themselves express constant frustration with the relentless progress of the disease. Capitalism's insatiable hunger for profits, in Coe's view, has created the widespread environmental poisoning that some blame for the breakdown of the human immune system, and has also denied adequate health care to AIDS' most desperate victims: the citizens of third-world countries (where the infection rate can approach 50%) and the poor in our own extremely rich nation. Even at its most benign, the present system saps a great deal of potential creative energy--as, for example, when doctors are forced to waste time arguing with insurance companies instead of treating patients.
Coe herself must constantly battle with the system’s inconsistencies, for she is keenly aware that editors publish her drawings at the risk of violating the vested interests of their advertisers. Nonetheless, her work is seen and appreciated today by a broader audience than ever before. It would be simplistic to say that bad economic times brought Bill Clinton to the White House and Sue Coe to the forefront of the mainstream press, though there is probably some truth to this statement. More to the point, however, Americans today share an urgent need to see their real life experiences expressed and validated, and increasing numbers have become committed to the struggle for a better world. Ultimately, Coe feels that her work draws its strength from the strength of its subject matter, and from people’s faith that the system can indeed be changed. We All Fall Down--an allusion to a nursery jingle which originated during the medieval plague--conveys both the artist’s despair at present-day social circumstances, and her ardent belief that exposing these circumstances is the best way to eradicate them.