It is difficult to be critical of Sue Coe as an artist without appearing to criticize the poignant social message evident in her dramatic representations of the socially outcast and downtrodden. But her work’s political urgency may encourage us to ask more probing questions than we do of much other art of the current “post-Modern” era. What is Coe’s sense of how to reveal content through art? Does her mode of monumentalizing content give the viewer a way to respond? How can we decide when this work is successful, either as art or as political commentary?
Organized by the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, this well-conceived traveling exhibition offers a comprehensive view of Coe’s work, presenting her social themes in their full range of scale and format. Unfortunately, for this viewer at least, such all-inclusiveness had a numbing effect; seeing one image after another of the violent brutality and bleakness of the world in which we live created a sense of overwhelming despair, and the feeling that a smaller selection of her work might have inspired a more empathetic response.
The exhibition, entitled “Police State,” draws attention to the distinction between the literal social commentary of Coe’s graphic illustration and the more metaphysical nature of her larger collages/paintings, particularly of the major pieces shown here together for the first time. As illustrations, Coe’s art gains implicit purpose by contributing a voice of conscience to the public forum of current events. For example, in the acerbic Bothatcher, 1986, she has transformed prime ministers Botha and Thatcher into a single Janus-like creature, a “Nazi” spider that crawls across continents beneath their cleverly overlapped names; this kind of commentary places Coe’s work in the most effective tradition of the political cartoon. However, in the larger pieces, her protagonists appear to transcend the journalistic context of the tragic events that dominate their lives, for Coe presents them in a more universal, or metaphysical, reality of perpetual suffering. In these works, she expresses as unremittingly dark an indictment of human nature as one senses through Goya’s “Disasters of War,” 1810–14.
Like Goya, Coe confronts us with images of our flawed, destructive society, and of the cruel fate of many individuals in such an inadequate culture. But Goya documented pitiable injustices that were sometimes redressed, as well as caused, by successive civil disruptions and modern revolution. Coe’s images confront us with the quandary of the inherent imperfectibility of contemporary society, without any suggestion of an imminent solution, revolutionary or otherwise. Her work suggests the collective destruction of society as an inevitable consequence of our moral decay.
Unlike the antiwar testimonials of her German Expressionist predecessor George Grosz, who employed a “liberated” Modernist style to propel a dialectical critique of social decadence, Coe’s rebuke of Modernism also rejects its implicit spirit of optimism in favor of what Donald Kuspit has called “a pessimistic humanism.” This condition, an apparent contradiction in terms, suggests that her work constitutes an ironic milestone in the post-Modern era. She has brought the Marxist critique of society to a terminal cultural crossroads, at which her sense of visionary despair overwhelms its own revolutionary spirit; Coe offers us an image of the end of art that is like a condemnation of human nature. Her self-critique of capitalist society has generated a penetrating vision of hopelessness in which she has politicized herself as an artist by viewing everyone as inescapable victims of the system.