Capitalizing on Capitalism

Hank Burchard, The Washington Post, March 25, 1994

SUE COE is still mad as hell, so I guess we'll just have to take it some more. A dozen of her slash-and-burn paintings excoriating animal exploitation, capitalism, militarism, racism and sexism are featured in the current Hirshhorn "Directions" exhibition.


Coe, 42, describes herself as a "gutter journalist" rather than an artist, and will get no argument here. She's a hip-shooter who picks easy targets, soliciting our sympathy and anger without expanding our understanding.


More interesting than the paintings is the biographical material in the exhibition checklist, which amounts to a black-comedy sketch about the frustrations of social engineering. Coe was born to a working-class family in Tamworth, England, heretofore famous mainly for the superior bacon produced by its pigs. Her mother, a factory worker and amateur painter, encouraged the girl's artistic bent, but Coe resisted an artistic career "because we didn't have any money." But at 16 she entered the government-subsidized Chelsea School of Art and then attended the Royal College of Art for free, courtesy of the government.


Benevolently, the government took no umbrage at the students' punk rebelliousness. "We shaved our heads and wore brooches made of raw liver," Coe later told an interviewer. "We incorporated razor blades and blood in our paintings."


While still in school she published drawings in European magazines but after graduation found that commissions were petering out and so hopped a plane for New York City, the capital of capitalism, where virtually from the moment she landed she found steady, well-paying work as a freelance illustrator for, among others, the New York Times.


Brutalized by this lifelong oppression, Coe has fervently devoted herself to excoriating the evils of capitalism and white males. The paintings in this show are too tiresome to describe, but the titles give the flavor: "Homeless Woman Dressed in Garbage Bags" (1972); "Woman Walks into Bar -- Is Raped by 4 Men on Pool Table -- While 20 Watch" (1983); "U.S. Military Successfully Bombs a Mental Hospital in Grenada" (1984); "Malcolm X and the Slaughterhouse" (1985).


Perhaps the quintessential Coe painting is "Thank You America (Anita Hill)" (1991). The composition includes a newspaper headline in which the name of Coe's adopted country is spelled "Amerikkka."


DIRECTIONS: SUE COE -- Through June 19 at the Hirshhorn Museum, Eighth and Independence SW. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Metro: L'Enfant Plaza.

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