Sue Coe’s Graphic Resistance, an exhibition of prints, drawings and collages at MoMA PS1, presents decades worth of arresting visual dissidence at a time when criticizing American fascism has, out of necessity, become the new normal.
Sue Coe (b. 1951) moved from London to New York City in 1972, and hasn’t stopped calling attention to the mistreatment of life—whether animal or human—ever since.
Her politically charged work, infused with a decidedly anti-capitalist vision, highlights the struggles of working people and those outcast from American society in visceral and graphic imagery. Her work boldly displays the fight of marginalized people and defenseless animals, for basic survival. Creating and publicly displaying this art in a major institution, such as MoMA, is a notable political act in 2018. It shouldn’t be.
Sue Coe: Graphic Resistance halts the complacent art museum attendee and wide-eyed bewildered NYC tourists in their tracks. For the time spent in the PS1 gallery space, one is forced to address an inherently flawed system and the ways that we knowingly yield to it.
As I walked into PS1 to view the show, a woman aggressively hurled her body against mine—shoving me aside—and excitedly told the museum attendant that she worked for Bloomberg—assuming this meant free admission despite the fact that it was free for all New York City residents, regardless.
I kept this encounter in the back of my mind while viewing Graphic Resistance, noting a drawing under a glass vitrine titled, The Animals died Laughing. A museum placard said that, “Coe became aware of the intersection between animal cruelty and capitalism.” In the faceless meat grinder of capitalism, all forms of life are expendable if there is profit to be made. This drawing is Coe’s interpretation of a plaque seen at the Bronx Zoo, with animals howling in misery at the sick irony of the zoo’s corporate sponsors “dedicated to supporting their mission to save wildlife” when the reality is that captivity-for-human-entertainment is cruel and inhumane for these creatures. One of the first corporations listed is Bloomberg. Oops. Say it ain’t so.
A small black and white drawing on an adjacent wall of the gallery, Begging Dog (1991), shows a looming male figure in a suit offering a dollar bill to a dog performing on its hind legs. The dog’s body is labeled with major media groups and magazines such as Newsweek, TIME, LIFE, and TV Guide. (Okay, this is a bit dated. Sumner Redstone won’t get bricks tossed through his window, at least not for now.) The critique of who controls mass media is blunt and direct, yet the bold graphic quality and high contrast between Coe’s stylistic drawing style and the corporate logos shows a sophistication of the medium. It was reminiscent of the Raymond Pettibon drawing of a 1960’s style TV that simply says, “KILL” on its screen.
While I’m on the subject, why was Sue Coe, who has a longer spanning career than Pettibon, given a small room on one floor of PS1 whereas Raymond had a multi-floor blockbuster retrospective at The New Museum? Both Coe and Pettibon’s work cover radical political themes, satire, printmaking, bold/illustrative monochromatic drawings, and the use of bitingly poignant text. The Guerrilla Girls have spent decades calling attention to this subject; it is worth noting that little has changed for female artists.
Relief printmaking has historically been a tool for political activists with the goal of disseminating information, and Coe continues this in a contemporary setting. The medium involves cutting a matrix from wood or softened linoleum, and calls for simplified graphic imagery formed solely from negative and positive space. The material is physically tough to carve through, further calling for graphic imagery. The only varying shades are shown through the drawing itself, because the entire image will be printed in one flat color—traditionally black.
I enjoyed the vitrines with her relief prints in relation to the highly skillful rendering of her lithographs. The lithograph with gouache titled, Alternative Facts, 2017, shows a brown man on his knees in handcuffs in the foreground while a white sheriff behind him scowls. The setting is framed by a wall of menacing barbed wire and shadows. The body and face of the cowering man is emotionally charged and the viewer feels sorrow seeping from the image. Coe mixes swift choppy strokes with large dark areas to create a foreboding tone. Text in stark white reads, “Alternative Facts: This person is: (a) illegal alien, rapist, drug dealer. b) human being, father, agricultural worker.” The use of text is pithy, yes, but reads like a punchline without a joke.
Sort of like our current president, who can boast about sexually assaulting women on-camera, openly deny facts and truth, lie pathologically, urge supporters to attack journalists, compare political refugees seeking asylum to animals, erode net neutrality, quote the Bible when discussing federal policy, and deliberately widen an ever-growing income gap.
I was struck by the range of dates of the work. Even though the show feels a bit bare, it manages to span decades. It gave me the sinking feeling that exploitation is (and always has been) a silent participant in American politics and the pendulum simply swings between varying degrees of authoritarianism. Also noteworthy were Coe’s visceral large-scale paintings depicting harrowing news stories, including Woman Walks Into Bar—Is Raped by Four Men on the Pool Table—While 20 Watch (1983), and her sardonic political cartoons that are reminiscent of the work of Francisco Goya.
The inscription on anarchist Emma Goldman’s grave reads, “Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to liberty.” I spent my teenage years visiting Emma Goldman’s grave in Chicago every May Day. I’d trace my palm over the cold gray stone of those etched words. Sometimes I unknowingly did this long enough to make my hands raw and tinged pink with blood; an atheist’s stigmata. I’d repeat that quote to myself and leave that plot of land invigorated and ready to fight for the ideals that I held close. A lifetime of fighting for those with a stifled voice and free will, regardless of consequence.
Critiquing our [distorted] version of democracy should be a check on our government’s power that runs effortlessly in the background of our daily lives, much like the silent hum of a troubleshooting program on your computer. As John Basil Barnhill noted way back in 1914, “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
I felt the same rush of vigor that I got from Emma Goldman’s grave after viewing Sue Coe’s Graphic Resistance. Each capital-T True story that Coe tells of the exploited within the confines of a page is a nail in the coffin of our oppressors. Her work is a blood-curdling scream in the face of corruption and she’s not out of breath…yet. I fear that she may just be getting started.
“Sue Coe: Graphic Resistance” is on view through Sept. 9, MoMA PS 1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Queens, Long Island City, NY 11101