Sue Coe’s paintings and drawings have staked a claim for art as a form of investigative journalism. They expose inequities and gross crimes to harsh light, prodding the viewers into fighting for change. Eschewing abstract style and ambivalent content, Coe makes immediate art that communicates hidden activities in blunt terms. Coe produces high-contrast figurative work with a style that could be described as expressionism—her figures and their surroundings are warped, misshapen, but given solidity through thick lines. Through this aesthetic Coe has depicted rape, war, and slaughter.
While her work has been highly praised, some critics dismiss Coe’s output as propaganda or question her lack of subtlety. In an interview with Provisions, Coe replied to these critics: “The misunderstanding about social political art is that the most political art is the art of avoiding reality, not revealing reality. It is always shocking that context and content are deemed ‘political’ or ‘propaganda’ and neutrality or irony is perceived as high art.” In reality, Coe belongs to a rich tradition of strident graphic dissent that’s been an undercurrent of the international arts scene for centuries.
Her book with Holly Metz, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, detailed the deaths of antiapartheid student activists in South Africa, and became a bible for the divestment movement in the United States. Her series Porkopolis, which examined the consequences of factory farming, was published in 1996 as Dead Meat. She’s also tackled war, labor conditions, rape, and other disturbing subjects with an unblinking eye. Coe’s art is displayed in major museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, and she had a retrospective at the Hirschhorn in 1994. However, Coe is ambivalent about the role of the hyper-capitalist museum in promoting and preserving her work. She has preferred to reach an audience through publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Major Solo Exhibitions:
The Malcolm X Series P.S. 1, Long Island City (1986)
Police State, traveling (1987)
Porkopolis, traveling (1989, 1993, 2009)
Directions Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC (1994)
Sheep of Fools, traveling (1996, 2005)
The Pit: The Tragical Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Vivisector Galerie St. Etienne, New York (1999)
The Tragedy of War Galerie St. Etienne, New York (2000)
Commitment to the Struggle: The Art of Sue Coe David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, Providence RI (2002)
Sue Coe: The Last 11 Days National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC (2006)