Sue Coe: It Can Happen Here
On ViewGalerie St. Etienne
September 15 – December 30, 2020
This large show, fully accessible online, includes more than 80 paintings, drawings, and prints, about half linocuts completed since 2016. The title comes from Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which a populist fascist becomes America’s president. But the tone is entirely Sue Coe’s own. Throughout the show, she presents industrial pollution, racist politicians, sexist violence, and the slaughter of animals for food. Thousands Try and Escape the Superdome (2006) shows the disaster of Katrina. Murder in the Gulf (2010) depicts the disasters of off-shore oil drilling. And two striking images with self-explanatory titles champion animal rights: Lost Whale Swims Up the Thames (2006) and Auschwitz Begins Whenever Someone Looks at a Slaughterhouse and Thinks (2009). As for our present president, Tweeter in Chief (2017) and The Dim Reaper (2020) do him justice.
Coe has found all the artistic resources that she needs in caricature and expressionism. She cites William Hogarth and James Gillray as admired precursors. But while they sometimes joke, she finds our situation too hopeless to inspire humor. It’s always nighttime in Coe’s world, with its intense fields of black, sometimes relieved by solid red. There is no postmodern irony in her art. A great deal of political painting, not only heroic socialist-realist paintings but also more nuanced images by Gustave Courbet and the Mexican muralists, shows oppression being resisted. But in Coe’s art there are only empowered villains and victims—never heroes. Hers is thus an art of pure despair. In that way, her lack of faith in transcendence deserves comparison with Francis Bacon, who, too, deforms his figures for expressive goals.
In their classic essay, “The Principles of Caricature,” E. H. Gombrich and the psychoanalyst Ernst Kris argue that, in art, aggression is taken out not on the pictorial subject, but rather on its representation. What follows, they urge, is that the “aggressive imagery of propagandist art” necessarily precludes it from “being taken as ‘art’ in our sense.”1 Coe’s works show clearly that this judgment is outmoded. In Cardboard Coffins (2020), Coe shrouds piled coffins in a Caravaggesque darkness. American Concentration Creche (2019) shows imprisoned refugees huddling together, like figures in a completely secularized Annunciation, without any shepherds or angels in the heavens. In WARNING: PESTICIDES (2019), a bird feeds her young in the moonlight, above a grimly poisoned field. And in Court Capture (Kavanaugh) (2018) the blindfolded figure of justice is set above the victims of her immoral judgments. Although Coe’s outrage and aggression is thus entirely unsublimated, there is still an unmistakably aesthetic dimension to her astonishingly virtuosic work. Using seemingly limited means, in relatively small format pictures, she works with a wide variety of themes. As much, then, as any old master, she makes all of her subjects her own—this is a notable achievement for art that carries a direct propagandistic message.
The philosopher and art critic Jonathan Gilmore describes “an internal relation between the artistic and moral value of a work in the relation between its “moral vision . . . and the point, purpose, or function it was created to realize.”2 The purpose of Coe’s ferocity is to make you, too, indignant about mindless politicians, abuse of the environment, and slaughter of animal life. And so to properly respond, to rephrase Rilke’s famous statement, you must change your life. As Seph Rodney has noted recently in Hyperallergic, some leading New York galleries are doing business as usual. And so St. Etienne deserves immense credit for their extended presentation of this exhibition, which forcefully responds to this immediate moment. Happy is the society that has no need for a Coe. But since we do, she is our perfect artist at the present moment. If I had my way, a poster showing United Front Against Fascism: VOTE (2020) would be posted at every bus stop. I hope that her art will have some effect. But god only knows if that will happen.
- Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1953): 192-3.
Jonathan Gilmore, Apt Imaginings: Feelings for Fictions and Other Creatures of the Mind (Oxford: 2020): 222.