Sue Coe has called the art world “a zipped-up body bag of what they call culture.”
Thinking about the troubling and troubled work of this extravagantly gifted artist, I found myself circling back to that statement, which is from a 1996 profile written by Steven Heller for Eye Magazine.
While Coe’s assessment is immediately satisfying in its radical critique (if you’ve ever spent time among certain sectors of the art establishment, you’ve no doubt had a whiff of the clubby and cadaverous stench wafting from their closed ranks), it fully resonates only after a period of reflection — a paradoxical reaction to an artist whose work is otherwise instantly accessible.
The body bag, with its connotations of violent death, is compelling in itself, but its being “zipped-up” makes the metaphor all the more irresistible.
In her formulation, culture is not only dead but also hidden from view, hermetically sealed, ready for burial. It is also closed off from the continuance of life all around it, which is what I think is the crux of the argument.
Formalism, co-optation, gentrification and commodification may well be among the body bag’s contents, but on the evidence of the paintings, drawings and prints Coe has produced over the past three decades, it would seem that the commotion going on outside of it — the intersection of art and life — is her chief concern.
Coe spends her artistic capital not to secure her work’s position in some contemporary art pantheon, but to enflame it with the issues of the day — or, as her many critics would point out, the issues that she cares the most about. Many of her pictures were done for the mass media, mostly books, newspapers and magazines, often in the form of political cartoons.
Since 1996, with the publication of her book Dead Meat, one of Coe’s prime concerns has been food production and the treatment of animals raised for slaughter. This shift in focus came about during the politically mild presidency (if compared with the Reagan years) of Bill Clinton, and at the time it seemed to me, if not a retreat, then something of a tangent.
This was a woman, after all, who had come up with such devastating images as “President Raygun Takes a Hot Bath” (1984), in which Ronald Reagan relaxes in a bathtub filled with the blood of murdered children, a nuclear-tipped phallus emerging between his legs, and the harrowing “We Come Grinning Into Your Paradise” (1982), a subterranean torture scene of demonic savagery.
“We Come Grinning Into Your Paradise” is on display in the current show at Galerie St. Etienne, which is called “‘Mad as Hell!’ New Works (and Some Classics) by Sue Coe.” It’s a title you would like to wish away, but then again, there is something to be gleaned from it.
Most of the new work deals with slaughterhouses and the mistreatment of pigs, goats and other farm animals. Rather than seeming off-topic, as they may have fifteen years ago, they serve as reminders of Coe’s prescience, now that industrial farm methods are continually in the headlines, and PETA has moved from the fringes to the mainstream.
(The gallery has cannily underscored Coe’s ahead-of-the-curve topicality — or the simple point that in business and politics, it’s the same shit, different day — by introducing the show with works titled “BP Shares Take a Dive” and “Wall Street Bloodbath,” both from 1987.)
The show’s title, an allusion to Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 movie, Network, is a populist howl of outrage (which, in the film, was actually a tool of mass hysteria and demagoguery) that has metastasized into a groaning cliché.
The title is a reminder that Coe’s favored instrument is still a sledgehammer, with sentimentality ever dogging her tracks. On the cover of her new book, Cruel (2012), there is even a top-hatted capitalist villain, straight out of Soviet Socialist Realism, catching coins streaming from the blood of slaughtered livestock.
The extremes of innocence and depravity set forth in the imagery only serve to undermine it. Coe’s skills are so mesmerizing, her graphic sense so visceral, that you wish, as with the exhibition title, that the message would be less blatant, or that there would be no message at all.
If this type of critique smacks of the very zipped-up culture that Coe rails against, I make it not to dismiss her art but because I want more out of it.
If only there were more works like “We Come Grinning Into Your Paradise,” with its nightmarish imaginings and poetically indirect title. But there, again, I found myself wishing that “CIA” were not scratched into the chest of the wolf-headed creature on the right.
Specificity is a virtue in art, but labeling is not. It embeds a vision as ghastly and timeless as Max Beckmann’s “Hell of the Birds” (1938), a painting made in the teeth of the Nazi juggernaut, into — if not a political cartoon—then a form of temporal topicality.
In “Hell of the Birds,” Beckmann’s monstrous eagles, one of which drags a knifepoint across a victim’s back, unambiguously evoke the Third Reich’s Roman-derived emblem, an association emphasized by the onlookers’ straight-armed Nazi salute. No words are necessary to drive the point home.
In Coe’s work, a straightforward text can sometimes be highly effective, as in “La Ocupación de Panamá” (1990) which describes in chilling detail the nefarious back story and bloody attack by Bush I on Panama in 1989.
But more often, if an image includes no words other than its title, such as “Strangling an Elephant” (2010), it is much more moving in its understated power than those that attempt to hammer each emotional nail.
For Dead Meat, the great muckraker Alexander Cockburn contributed a brief history of humankind’s eternally fraught relationship with the animal kingdom, going all the way back to Genesis (with a typical Cockburnian flourish, he begins the essay, “Start with God”).
Being the contrarian that he is, he doesn’t fail to mention that Hitler was a vegetarian and goes on to conclude the text with an account of butchering a lamb for his own consumption. But after reading the calamitous environmental and social consequences of meat production, you can’t help but come away feeling that Coe’s heart, and anger, are in the right place.
The book also contains diary-like texts from Coe’s research into slaughterhouses, which took her around the country to see the facilities firsthand.
In Utah she meets an elderly rancher named Don, whom she describes as “one of the last cowboys.” Don tells her that people who live in cities are “mixed breeds who are doomed.” But at the end, she notes that:
Despite Don’s ideology, his actions don’t match his words. From what I’ve heard, he gives money, jobs, and housing to many people in need, with no strings attached. Like all the people I have met in the meat industry, he can’t be categorized. His life is complex.
If only more of that complexity and contradiction could have adulterated Coe’s images, allowing us to identify not with the victims, but with their killers. That would be much harder to shake.
“Mad as Hell!” New Works (and Some Classics) by Sue Coe continues at Galerie St. Etienne (24 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 3.
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