Sue Coe is a sociopolitical artist whose burning convictions inform her work with relentless force. She publishes in newspapers and magazines and through the medium of affordable prints to get her ideas out to as large a public as possible, and there is never any doubt about what her ideas are.
As is everywhere apparent in the terrific exhibit at Maryland Art Place, "Sue Coe: Current Events, Prints and Drawings," she champions the underdog, including minorities, women, the homeless and animals, against oppressors in government, the arms industry and elsewhere. Indebted to the German expressionists, her style is one of high contrasts, of fires, explosions and harsh light illuminating scenes of struggle, neglect and cruelty.
Working in series, she ranges from crowded scenes with multiple focal points to starkly simple images, and from one medium to another, to maximize effect. An image may also change from drawing version to print version to heighten the drama. This fine selection by Baltimore Museum of Art curator Jay M. Fisher allows us to examine her work in depth.
Her drawings can be so accomplished they verge on the beautiful, to a degree that threatens to subvert her message, but she appears to be aware of that. In "The New World Order," inspired by the Persian Gulf war, a great mass of people in gas masks huddles on the ground as the air above is filled with planes and bombs, the horizon aglow with the burning of the world. The fire gradually dissipates and softens upward into a not unattractive twilight sky. But in the print of this work, Coe has substituted a dark sky with jagged slashes of light.
In "Porkopolis," perhaps her most successful and varied series, Coe leaves no doubt that blame must be placed not on the workers in the industry, who are depicted as something like slaves, but in large part on the public, which goes on consuming the products of the industry in willful ignorance of conditions. Her "The Ark" is a figure with a mouth as large as a cave toward which marches a procession of animals; the legend underneath reads "In 10 years the average American consumes 144 fishes, )) 185 chickens, 8 turkeys, 7 pigs, 1 lamb, 2 cows."
"Farmer John's II" depicts a walled pig-slaughtering factory; inside the walls men channel the pigs to the slaughterhouse across a bare space with a concrete floor. The outside of the walls, however, has been painted to look like a peaceful farm, with stream, grass, trees, where pigs spend happy days in the fresh air. The message is clear: We accept this fiction of "Farmer John's" because we don't want to face the reality.
Coe does not shrink from taking on the powerful directly and stingingly. Bush and AIDS: A picture of Bush and the legend BUSH AIDS S&L; (Swindle & Loot). Bush the environmentalist: The former president rising like a stinking odor out of a garbage can, wielding a spray can of air freshener. The Supreme Court on abortion: A woman huddled on the ground before a death-faced, robed figure labeled "Court of Supreme Cruelty" wielding a coat hanger.
Not everyone will agree with all of Coe's positions, but surely everyone can admire the courage that shines through her art, a beacon illuminating the dark corners of the world.
In conjunction with the Coe exhibit, and in keeping with Coe's principle of affordable art, the second-floor gallery at MAP is devoted to "Teeny Tiny Press: Zamizdat and Other Propaganda," a show of small, inexpensive publications from all over on subjects ranging from religion to gender, politics and literature. This exhibit is for browsing, handling (carefully) and reading these publications, and there's a resource book to tell you where they come from. A sample of titles may give some idea of the range: Gnosis, Kooks, Filth, the Lost Peruke, Anarchy and Ecstasy, Amish Life, Artpolice, Syzygy, A Slice of Sleaze, Retrofuturism, Vague, the Duplex Planet.