It’s impossible to look at Sue Coe’s graphic black-and-white images in the “Porkopolis” series and not feel her passion. Feelings about the slaughter of animals for food aside, the images are powerful. The composition, lighting and drawing are all stirring and recall the bold, emotional force of Kathe Kollwitz, the kaleidoscopic disillusionment of George Grosz and the nightmare visions of Francisco Goya.
“Porkopolis” is a graphic illustration of Coe’s research into the multibillion-dollar farm food production industry. This is the gross side of a fast-food hamburger and the all-you-can-eat rib dinner, a womb-to-slaughterhouse look at animals (mostly pigs), raised to feed a nation. It’s damning. Shivering animals standing in blood watch as those before them are shot and strung up on hooks to bleed and be dismembered. It’s all there--the gore, the detail-rich bits of visual information that let you know this is reality, observed on one of Coe’s trips to 15 slaughterhouses, not simply events invented to make a non-issue volatile.
Yet Coe’s skillful manipulation of painting’s emotional tools makes her images alluring, even while her subjects are repellent. Coe uses darkness like a liquid, living web--ensnaring, isolating and menacing the denizens of her cavernous drawings. Usually inky, it occasionally congeals into thick, clotting rivers or tangible poisonous atmospheres. Light is always theatrical, harsh and aimed like a gun. Her drawing is sharp, unforgiving and so carefully exaggerated for effect that it stages animal and human bodies into dramatically choreographed dances that reel with pathos, vileness or debasement.
In “Porkopolis,” Coe does more than wail about cruelty to animals; she dwells on the human toll in maintaining the unending slaughter. It’s recorded in the slack, numbed faces and bodies of the men and women whose jobs entail searing off the beaks of baby chicks so they won’t peck each other to death when overcrowded, or who must mallet or electrocute 1,500 beasts to death every hour. (We know the exact numbers because Coe occasionally uses marginal notes that make the images even more unrelenting.) The workers, as much as the animals they prod, butcher or genetically engineer into grotesque monsters for easy processing, are all the victims of production-line thinking applied to living flesh.
Some see this topic as an unfortunate detour for Coe, branding her a potent political activist turned bleeding heart for giving such attention to farm animals. Slaughterhouses notwithstanding, many find eating meat a non-moral issue and Coe’s politics opposing our species’ manifest destiny as way too far to the left.
Yet this work comes from the same enlightened social disgust that fired her incisive images about South Africa’s “suicide” detainees, the Massachusetts pool-room gang rape, and the Ku Klux Klan. Fueled by personal observation, versus the newspaper accounts that inspired her prior work, the “Porkopolis” series frequently has a more raw, visceral kind of drawing than some of her other series. Unlike her other subjects, however, this topic has personal implications of moral collusion as uncomfortably close as our next meal.
“Porkopolis” is a fascinating and appalling series of paintings. Fascinating not only for the emotional, expressive way Coe has painted them, but for the way the artist leads us to finally confront and consider our willingness to maintain the mental blinders of oppression when it suits us. In dealing with the ethics of eating meat presented in this farming-as-slavery metaphor, we run up against human history and the marvelous capacity of otherwise good individuals and societies to never question their right to own, manipulate, torture or debase others. It’s the subject Coe has dealt with so powerfully in other images. Given humanity’s history, it becomes unsettling--but only honest--to consider for a moment that human ethical development may now demand that any carnivore with a soul might have to reevaluate his “right” to brutalize and consume other animals.