New York

Sue Coe

Galerie St. Etienne

In the 60 drawings comprising “Porkopolis,” Sue Coe, who in the past has created works dealing with politically charged subjects from the Ku Klux Klan to rape, turns her considerable energies as researcher and graphic artist to this country’s meat industry. Coe intends the project to update The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 literary account of the same subject. Though Coe focuses on the animals rather than the factory workers as victims, her images argue that things have only gotten worse for both.

The black and white watercolor-and-graphite images, many done from life (Coe visited farms and meat packing plants), are softer and more realistic than her previous works. However, they still exploit such expressionistic devices as sharply angled perspectives and extreme chiaroscuro, and the haggard faces of some of the workers recall German expressionist woodcuts. As a group, the drawings take us on a step-by-step tour of a pig’s life from nursery to marketplace, providing a detailed chronicle of contemporary genetic engineering, as well as of the transport and slaughtering processes, complete with explanatory labels and occasional statistics. Coe shows us workers and animals in alternating states of panic (in There Is No Escape, 1988, a frightened hog flees from imminent death) and stupor (in Cold Cuts, 1989, workers face the monotony of the assembly line.) Elsewhere, animals are shown suffering days and hours of immobile captivity. These emotions are played out against a backdrop of enormous machines and dangling hooks and chains, in a mechanized version of Piranesi’s careri (prisons).

Coe does not oppose good and evil, but the darker struggle between victims and oppressors. In this series, the oppressors are the mostly unseen absentee owners and bankers, whose sheer greed has propelled the meat industry into a vast biotechnical and environmental nightmare characterized by unnecessary waste and chilling cruelty. In Swift—Butcher to the World, 1989, one proprietor, holding money bags that drip blood, perches on a heap of animal heads and bones; in Wall Street—Making a Killing, 1988, two businessmen greedily scan the financial pages, while a blood-red torrent of animal parts courses down the darkened street. Meanwhile, in the plants, hogs are castrated, bloated with bulking agents, tranquilized, and kept immobile, so that they reach slaughter weight in record time.

“Porkopolis” is meant to outrage; the breathless rhetoric of the accompanying text by the artist’s sister, political activist Mandy Coe, is an even more explicit call to battle, complete with alarming statistics and addresses of contact agencies. In adopting a polemical stance and allowing for only one reading of the facts, Coe’s works contradict the current notion that art can and should convey multiple meanings. Her work does not so much stir the imagination as prod the conscience. Since the beginning of this century, photography has often functioned in the realm of social documentary; with “Porkopolis,” Coe attempts to reclaim this turf for painters. The psychological and visual impact of these images suggests the validity of her strategy.

Lois E. Nesbitt