The art of Sue Coe reflects her desire to reveal what is hidden. Whether it be human or animal suffering, it is all too easy for the privileged classes to ignore, willfully or in ignorance, the dark sides of western society. Poverty, injustice, racism, and animal cruelty are all issues that we grapple with every day, and yet the struggle remains, in many ways, under the surfaceâ€”easily overlooked by those who do not deal with it directly. That, for Coe, is where art comes in: as an artist, she aims to bring these hidden problems to the surface. In her own words, â€œIn my life, I record whatâ€™s concealedâ€¦ and what people are indifferent to.(1)â€
Coeâ€™s sense of justice, and the striving for justice which comes through in her work, was in large part founded in her early years. Surrounded by the remnants of a devastating war, in which many people had been killed, and living a block away from a slaughterhouse from which she could hear the animals crying out as they were being led to their deaths, she described her experience during this period as â€œliving among innocents who were about to die, and the war memorials of the dead .(2)â€ Appealing to adults for answers, they could offer her none to her satisfaction.
Sue Coe was born in Staffordshire (central England) in 1951.(3) Shortly after her birth, her family moved to Hersham, in south London.(4) The environment in which Coe grew up provided her with what she has called â€œa perfect incubator for art thoughts.(5)â€ Her own artistic pursuits at this time included studying the daily comic strip â€œThe Adventures of Rupertâ€ and drawing animals in chalk on the sidewalk.(6) Her father, a salesperson, carved wooden crates as a hobby. Her mother, who had attended art school for a time before leaving to work as a telephone operator, would gift Coe and her sister Mandy with paints and brushes for Christmas. It was from her parents, Coe explains, that she â€œlearned to appreciate craft.(7)â€
She also learned from her parents something of the indifference of adults toward the suffering of animals. In Dead Meat, Coe relates walking with her mother past the intensive hog farm, which was located only a block from their home, on their way to the market. Suddenly, a pig broke free from its handlers and darted up and down the street, trying to escape, while bystanders laughed. When Coe asked her mother why this was funny, her mother said, â€œItâ€™s not funny. The pig is going to be slaughtered.(8)â€ Just a block from the house, Coe could hear the screaming of the pigs late at night as they were led from the farm to the slaughterhouse.(9) These experiences, which affected Coe deeply, formed the basis of her later work pleading compassion for animals.
The city in which she lived was another important factor in Coeâ€™s upbringing. The scars left over from World War II were still very much apparent in the burned-out buildings still left standingâ€”scars from the Blitz, the German bombings that caused the deaths of more than 20,000 Londoners.(10) These monuments, memories of an event that had happened before her time, entranced the young artist. With entire walls blown away to reveal their insides, in Coeâ€™s mind they resembled â€œgiant doll houses but with no dolls.(11)â€ But Coe couldnâ€™t grasp the meaning of the events that led to these life-sized play-houses. Seeking a reason for them, she turned to her parents. Unable to give a satisfactory answer, they could only make the excuse, â€œâ€¦we didnâ€™t know.(12)â€ Later, Coe would ruminate on the connections between the barbarities of war and the cruelty of the slaughterhouse, as well as the indifference or ignorance of onlookers.
Growing up in a working-class family, Coeâ€™s options after school were limited. Despite the â€œperfect incubatorâ€ in which she grew up, Coe at first resisted being an artist, as she thought it would be impossible to sustain herself financially. Illustration proved to be the â€œhappy mediumâ€ between being an artist and making money, and this was enough to convince Coe to pursue it as a viable career. At 21, she was accepted to complete a masters program at the Royal Academy of Art (RCA) in London.(13) Her dreams were of becoming a graphic designer making her living by designing greeting cards and packaging.(14)
During her time at the RCA, however, she began to have second thoughts. Courses consisted of formulaic assignments and rigid art making techniques such as learning to set type. Far from living her dream, Coe languished under these dull projects.(15)
In addition, Coe was beginning to sense a â€œdisconnect between what was being taught and the reality of the world.(16)â€ It was the early 1970s and the Vietnam War had captured the worldâ€™s attention. In solidarity with other workers and student protesters, students at the RCA took over the school. They were angry, not only about the war, but also Englandâ€™s class-based educational system, which allowed only limited mobility.(17) It was during this movement, Coe says, that her â€œreal education began.(18)â€
In response to the protest, reaction from authoritiesâ€”that is, police and school administrationâ€”was severe. Sympathetic teachers were fired, students were threatened with expulsion, and police barricades were erectedâ€”they were attempting to starve the students out.(19) Visitors in support of the protest included Marxists activists and political artists such as Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Coe was especially drawn to Ono, who impressed the young artist with her â€œcreativity and wit.(20)â€ Other celebrities donated money to the students, and Coeâ€™s own father threw food over the barricades.(21) Reflecting on this period, Coe notes that she and the other student protestors did not embrace any particular ideology, only a general anger.(22) Nonetheless, Coe was finding herself keeping company with activist students. During the protest, she participated in political marches and created posters establishing meeting dates and times.(23)
Disillusioned with school and popular commercial art in general, Coe embraced the neo-expressionist movement, of which she is considered to be a pioneer.(24) The movement, developed as a response to minimalist and conceptualist art, encompasses a wide variety of styles, but generally takes inspiration from modern and pre-modern art. In the vein of Expressionism, work in this style embraces a gestural quality, intended to evoke an emotional response.(25) Coe herself notes with disdain the â€œfew abstract smears that middle-class people could get away with(26)â€ when comparing minimalist and conceptualist art to work by David Hockney, who had studied at RCA about ten years prior to Coe and was a notable influence (she enthuses, â€œ[h]is draftsmanship was very working-classâ€).(27) Other of Coeâ€™s major influences were Kathe Kollwitz (with whom she is often compared), George Grosz, and Frida Kahlo.(28) Her peer group, which included Stewart Mackinnon, Terry Dowling, and the Quay brothers, was also significant in the development of her burgeoning vision.(29)
Not finding enough encouragement from the RCA for the kind of work she wanted to do, Coe rebelled against the university. For every assignment asking for childrenâ€™s illustration, she would hand in a drawing of a plane crash or an apocalyptic scene.(30) She would have failed to complete her degree if it were not for two professors, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake, who supported her vision and encouraged her to develop her own method of self-expression.(31) Thus motivated, Coe requested permission to complete her MA independently in New York, which she did, in 1973.(32)
In New York, Coe continued to do the kind of political work she was interested in, and this effected a change in her art style. Wanting to support the cityâ€™s poor in their struggle for equality in labor, she began making posters for the American Communist Party. These posters, announcing organized strikes and meetings, were much the same as she had done during the protest movement at the RCA. This time, however, her â€œfunky English punk art(33) â€ was out-of-place, as this imagery did not resonate much with poor laborers as it did with art students. Realizing a need to adapt, Coe began to leave behind abstraction and adopt a â€œmore realistic depiction(34) â€ of the workersâ€™ struggle.
In support of these aims, Coe developed a journalistic approach, which she has termed â€œgutter journalism(35)â€ or â€œreportage.(36)â€ Walking around the streets of New York, she would sketch, in sequence, the scenes and events that surrounded her. From these narratives, she would derive imagery for her illustrations.(37) This method helped her to process the culture of the city she found herself inâ€”one in which the rich and the poor lived in such close proximity to each other but were, in nearly every other respect, worlds apart.
Coe was lucky to find work with people who supported her aims. One such person was Mirko Ilic, then art director for the New York Times. Ilic allowed her plenty of freedom as an artist and was willing to defend her work to publishers.(38) Coe enjoyed the challenge of overnight jobs, which required her to come up with visually compelling work in a matter of hours, and found that the various other restrictions created an impetus for creating work that pushed against the conventional boundaries of illustration.(39)
The field of illustration itself fit well with Coeâ€™s ideas about â€œlowâ€ art. â€œIllustration is immediately accessible to people who would not normally be interested in â€˜art,â€™â€ says Coe in an interview with 3x3: The Magazine for Contemporary Illustration. â€œThere is a lack of self consciousness in illustration, a type of humility in being a pencil for hire, that is lacking in art made specifically to hang on a gallery wall.(40)â€ In addition, â€œI enjoy calling myself an illustrator in the gallery context, because there is nothing more despised in an art critics mind, than an 'illustrator' - maybe 'cartoonist' is even lower on the what is hi art scale.(41)â€ Having grown up in a working class family, it is clear her sentiments still lay among the â€œlowerâ€ classes, and this shines through in her work and subjects.
Coeâ€™s unvarnished vision of reality did not always sit well with publishers. In one instance, Coe was hired by a magazine to illustrate the story of a woman who had been raped in a bar. Wanting to expose the vicious actions of the men, Coe created a drawing that was unapologetically graphic in detail: in it, she depicts the woman splayed on a pool table, surrounded by men whose expressions range from violent intent to cruel indifference. The composition is stark black and white with high contrast of value, serving well its dark subject matter. Not surprisingly, censors deemed the picture too offensive to be printed in full. Their solution was to cut off the bottom half of the drawing, so that the woman remained exposed but the menâ€™s actions were softened. Infuriated by this, Coe painted Woman Walks into a Bar, is Raped by Four Men on the Pool Table â€“ While 20 Watch, a large (about 7.5â€™x9.5â€™) painting of the same drawing. By creating this oversized image, which had to be painted in sections in her tiny apartment(42) , Coe ensured that none of the content could be easily hidden, requiring the viewer to confront the act in its shocking reality.
This painting, and Coeâ€™s struggles with censorship, echoes a theme that would continue to drive her work: that of concealment. Speaking about Woman Walks Into a Bar, Coe says, â€œWe are the onlookers, we are the twenty people that didn't call the police, that didn't perceive this as wrong, so we are colluding with the oppressor... Are we silent?(43)â€ She continues, â€œBasically, this painting is therapy. â€¦ It opens up a dialogue, it gives people an opportunity to talk about these issues. I've seen men stand in front of this painting and they've discussed rape, and they've vocalized their feelings about this painting.(44)â€ As Coe developed her work, her striking imagery would continue to serve this purpose: breaking the barrier of silence and censorship, it would reveal the bare injustices that lay beneath the haze of indifference, and force viewers to make a choice: to see it, or to choose not to see.
Clearly, magazine illustration was too small a canvas for the expansiveness of her goals. She therefore began to look for other outlets. How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (New York: RAW Books and Graphics, 1983), written by Holly Metz, was one of her first experiments with a new format. The book cannot be easily definedâ€”it is part news report, part picture book. It provides a detailed background on the political state of South Africa in the early 1980s, laying out the methods by which Dutch colonizers enacted a systematic oppression of the native African population, and ends with a list of American corporations and banks that had, at the time of the bookâ€™s publication, invested in or provided loans to the countryâ€™s government.
Coe pulls no punches in depicting the gruesomeness and violence of apartheid rule. As in her editorial work, her illustrations are darkly cartoonish; her human and animal figures are twisted and angular, and collaged newspaper headlines are pasted on top of the drawings. Her depictions of African activists, subjects of torture and other cruelty by European and Afrikaner officials and soldiers, are gaunt and skeletal. Their oppressors, meanwhile, are depicted with devilish, animalistic features such as pointed teeth and blood dripping from their mouths. Coeâ€™s illustrations fill the page; again like her previous work, the stark, black and white (mostly, save for subtle, muddied hues and splashes of blood red for emphasis) illustrations complement the subject matter. Beyond illuminating the text, they are darkly compelling, forcing the viewer to take in the horror of the scene.
The book, though well intentioned, has been criticized for being â€œpropagandist,(45)â€ or observed from an outsiderâ€™s perspective and projecting a simplistic view of the conflict. It lacked the humanistic touch of her more recent work. The handling of South Africa, however, may be contrasted with a project that began ten years later, when Coe decided to address an issue that was much closer to home.
She was far from the only artist to address the AIDS crisis. From the early 80s to mid-90s, there was an outcry from activistsâ€”which included artistsâ€”who were frustrated by what they saw as the governmentâ€™s total failure to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic. It was only in 1986, after the disease had claimed more than 20,000 people, that Reagan publically acknowledged the existence of AIDS.(46) To Coe, this was another example of concealment, when, like the Holocaust, a great number of individuals turned away from the injustice and suffering happening within their view. Her response could have come in the form of another accusatory exposÃ©, but she instead chose a more humanistic approach.
In 1994, Dr. Eric Avery, an artist and activist, invited Coe to visit the AIDS wing of the Galveston Hospital in Galveston, Texas. There, Coe talked to a number of patients and workers, writing down their conversations and sketching their portraits. (47) In sharp contrast to her earlier work, they are not densely rendered nor disorienting, and the images are not intended to shock; all trace of the â€œpunk English styleâ€ is gone. Instead, the suite is comprised mainly of line etchings, which bring directness to the portraitsâ€”not far removed from a sketchbook drawing, they breathe with the feeling of an immediate observation. Even the other, painterly images have a softness that conveys empathy and tenderness.
In one etching, titled Thomas (1994), Coe has made an effort to show the subject as a real person. She has carefully outlined his features and his hands, which are clasped together. His expression, affectionately delineated, is one of sadness and resignation. At the bottom of the page, Coe notes that the patient had been spurned by his family, who no longer wanted him. In fact, each patient she interviewed would die in the ward because they were not deemed worthy of careâ€”many hospital workers would refuse to enter the ward because they were afraid of the disease.(48) In these prints, then, Coe was trying to create a memorial for human beings who had been casted aside by the rest of the world; she was trying to be a witness for them. Propagandist motives had given way to a desire to create an authentic connection between subject and viewer.
Coe carried these intentions over to a subject that she is most known for, and that continues to be her major focus of concern. Animal rightsâ€”a movement against the industrialized slaughter and exploitation of animalsâ€”were something that had concerned her from childhood. Remembering the way that neighbors ignored the screams emanating from the slaughterhouse down the street of her London home, she was determined to expose the activities and practices of the farm industry. Arming herself with a sketchbook (when possibleâ€”many farm owners frowned upon recordings of any sort, and photography was nearly always forbidden to her(49) ), she visited numerous slaughterhouses across the United States and England. Unwavering, Coe was not afraid to stand amidst the active slaughtering room (called the â€œkill floorâ€), and record, in words and drawings, what she witnessed there. This work culminated in the book Dead Meat, published in 1996 (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows).
Coeâ€™s graphic style comes through gruesomely well in the images she created for this project. The images in this book bear many of the traits of her earlier, editorial workâ€”the rendered images in this book are overall dark, with sharp highlights for emphasis. This technique can be seen in Meat Flies (Graphite, gouache, and ink, 1991). In this image of a slaughterhouse interior, the light source comes from outside the room. The bright, white light shines inward, but the interior remains dark and grimy. A yellowish hue, mixed in with some dark areas, brings to mind grime and bile. The subject of the painting, a cow laying in the center of the composition, is the focal point of the scene; her eyes are white against her black fur and the surrounding darkness of the room, and she lays in a pool of blood painted bright red. Coe uses these techniques to draw attention to the cowâ€™s eyes, which seem to plead sympathy from the viewer, and making them complicit in what is about to happen.
In All the Darkness of the World Cannot Extinguish the Light of One Candle (2006, woodcut), it is not difficult to imagine the central figure as a self-portrait. The piece is optimistic: the darkness can be banished by just one person. Coeâ€™s art, then, is a candle in the darkness made of the ugliness that is in the world. Her art, too, although dark and often gruesome, is optimistic in its scope; it is meant to move people who see it and may not otherwise have considered the perspectives that she depicts. On a personal level, too, the work is important; says Coe, â€œ[the work] is a living memorial â€¦ itâ€™s a memory â€¦ a real record. So every sheep, every goat thatâ€™s died, every cow, every pig Iâ€™ve seenâ€”and itâ€™s a tiny, tiny fraction of the billionsâ€”but I remember their faces and that means the most, that someone remembered them... even if itâ€™s only me.(50)â€
For Coe, the first step towards creating a better world is destroying the blinds obscuring truth, in order to see what is really there. If an image can facilitate this, then it ceases to be simply an illustrationâ€”it becomes art. Because the subjects in Coeâ€™s work are universal, they have the power to move viewers, to change their way of thinking about the world. Says Coe, â€œif we, as Western people, put ourselves in the place of other beings without power, thatâ€™s the beginning of change.(51)â€ Sue Coeâ€™s work reveals topics that are hidden, and in this way, it becomes artâ€”and, more importantly, a catalyst for change.
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