Sue Coe doesn’t aim to please. The British-born artist, who moved to New York in 1972, says she is a “graphic witness” to the hidden sufferings that our lives of comfort and plenty are based on. Her intention is to challenge, to hold up a magnifying glass to the ugly, uncomfortable truths we’d rather ignore.
For the past 35 years Coe has been creating politically charged illustrations, prints, and paintings on subjects ranging from AIDS, to the criminal justice system, to class and gender issues, to animal cruelty. She calls herself a “visual journalist” and says her art is based on detailed research. She’s spent time with dying patients at AIDS wards, sat through night courts, and stood on the bloody kill-floors of slaughterhouses.
While her work has always revolved around injustice in diverse forms, animals and how their bodies are used in the “capitalist labor process” have been her main focus. Starting in 1986, Coe began investigating the meat industry, visiting factory farms, hatcheries, slaughterhouses, and research labs in England, the United States, and Canada. She chronicled her observations in hundreds of mixed-media drawings that have since been displayed at exhibitions and made their way into publications like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and TIME.
Coe traces her commitment to animal rights to growing up next to a hog farm and slaughterhouse in Tamworth, England. “I heard the rattling chains and the screaming that went on from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. … It was right next door, people ignored it,” she recalled in a recent interview. She says she couldn’t help but make a connection between the mass slaughter of humans, represented by the two World War memorials in her town, and animal butchery. Coe acknowledges that this comparison – a few of her images, like Gassing Hogs, equate farmed animals to Holocaust victims – might seem overwrought to some people. But she believes that our relationship with animals provides a “key link” to our abusive relationship with nature as well as with fellow human beings.
Rendered mostly in black and white (though she has recently begun dabbling in color), Coe’s images shift from the general to the particular – from depicting the monumental scale of slaughterhouses (Factory Pharm, Feed Lot), to the callous disregard of people picnicking right by the walls of a cattle farm (It’s a Picnic), to tenderly rendered close-ups of individual animals (20boltpistol, Goat Waiting Outside Slaughterhouse). The intense images reveal a society in which mechanized killing and brutalization of the weak by the strong is the norm, as is our willful blindness.
Coe can be strident at times, especially when she uses red text to overstate the obvious. She seems to be constantly struggling to find artistic balance between screaming out the message and using a more subtle style. Her artwork and her message are most effective when she refrains from commentary and simply bears witness – and in the process implicates us all.
Sue Coe is represented by Galerie St Etienne. Her latest book, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation, was released in April.
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