Thursday, May 08, 2008

Sue Coe - About the Artist (1997)


About the Artist
Sue Coe is an artist who tackles many different subjects and her works raise a multitude of issues. The ASU Art Museum is the archive for her prints; two essays, this introductory short biography and the exhibition essay for Heel of the Boot, are placed here. The two essays each deal with an aspect of Coe’s works and are entitled Art and Propaganda and Works from Observation.

“Coe is one of the most important social protest artists working today in the long tradition of those who have recorded man’s savagery. Her unique style incorporates many aspects of past art: the atmospheric quality and incisiveness of Goya; the pathos of Kathe Kollwitz, the sharp angularity of Max Beckmann; the collage technique of John Heartfield; the chilling skeletal forms of Posada and Orozco. They have all been given new life in her searing portrayals of contemporary life.” Sue Coe (1)

Sue Coe was born in the United Kingdom in 1951, in a town called Tamworth. She grew up in an England recovering from the Second World War. Some of her early childhood memories are of walking through bombed out areas, looking at the craters and destroyed houses. Within this recovering society, Coe awakened to differences in class, not merely between upper and lower, but smaller, less noticeable ones, such as the difference between living in a “detached” and a “semi-detached” house. “Even within our tiny street class raised its ugly head.”

At that time, as now, further education in the UK was dependant on the passing of a qualifying exam. If one passed, more schooling was offered. If one failed, the only other option was to go to a training college, a training that led to work in a factory or work as a secretary. Sue Coe failed that exam and was allowed, due to the indifference of her parents, to “develop a malignant fantasy world, which could have turned into psychosis, or art. It was art.”

In her neighborhood there was a slaughterhouse and a hog farm. The hog farm started where her family’s backyard left off. A few miles away was St. Georges Hill, one of the wealthier neighborhoods in England. As Coe puts it, “our reality of the hog farm and the slaughterhouse was not a personal reality, but a class reality.” In her childhood, the juxtaposition of a slaughterhouse nearby to an exclusive golf club started her mind questioning the way the world was ordered.

Much of Coe’s work can be seen in light of her experiences. All artists works are fueled and fed by their experience. Art, however, need not only be looked at in the context of an artist’s life; art, of a sufficient quality, can exhibit a life of its own. Knowledge of the artist’s life can deepen one’s appreciation of the work but it cannot replace that appreciation. Also, a reliance on this manner of viewing work can take away from the very real abilities of the artist. Not everyone who grew up beside a hog farm becomes Sue Coe.

Despite the fact that she did not pass qualifying examinations for college, she managed to go the Royal College of Art in London. “During the early 70's the Labour government was in power, and they encouraged education for working-class students at the Royal College. I got in for free - otherwise I couldn’t possibly have gone.” Here she acquired the skills and honed her abilities that got her a job in America. In an almost apocryphal story, she went to the offices of The New York Times, dropped off her portfolio and got hired immediately.

Here she was exposed both to the requirements of producing work that had to be related to an Op-Ed essay, ready by a certain time, and a critical view of the world. She became involved in the “Workshop for People’s Art”, a volunteer association of artists, and in 1974 began work on a series that came from her observation of Manhattan street life. As the collection of work at the ASU Art Museum shows, her interest is focused towards a view of the world not regularly presented. She shows the viewer things that are, for the most part, overlooked.

Coe’s work is political. Her observations and her experiences have been distilled into sharp, pointed critiques of our society. She deals with class issues, she draws inequalities and oppression. And she does this without holding back. Her subject matter is imbued with her concern and her political intent. Also, the media in which she works has a certain political tinge to it. Prints have been used to criticize since the day they were invented, fromthe times of Martin Luther through (insert name of English coricaturist here-Rowlandson?) Honore Daumier to John Heartfield. Coe has said, “I am a print artist. I do all my work for reproduction, for the masses, for the millions of people that read newspapers and magazines, not just for the few people that come to art galleries.”
Coe tackles a variety of subjects in her work, although all are linked. Her work raises many issues and, no doubt, as many hackles. The two following essays deal with topics that arise from her work.

(1) Gill, Susan, Sue Coe’s Inferno, Artnews (Artnews Associates, N.Y.) October 1987, p. 112

Suggested Reading

Sue Coe, Dead Meat, (Four Walls Eight Windows, N.Y.) 1995

Michael Stevenson
Research Assistant
Graduate Student - Painting and Drawing
Fall 1997

* * *
Selected bibliography

• How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (with Holly Metz). (1984) Random House. ISBN 0-394-62024-0
• Meat: Animals and Industry (with Mandy Coe). (1991) Gallerie Publications. ISBN 0-9693361-6-0
• Dead Meat. (1996) Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-041-X
• Pit's Letter. (2000) Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-163-7
• Bully!: Master of the Global Merry-Go-Round (with Judith Brody). (2004) Four Walls Eight Windows. ISBN 1-56858-323-0
• Sheep of Fools (with Judith Brody). (2005) Fantagraphics Books. ISBN 1-56097-660-8
• Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation. (2012) OR Books. ISBN 978-1-935928-72-0

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