New York

Sue Coe

Galerie St. Etienne

Granted, the world is a rotten, inhumane place. Blacks are oppressed and brutalized, the meat industry manipulates us almost as much as the military-industrial complex, and the United States is a neofascist aggressor; yet it is not the message in Sue Coe’s art that interests me. All of her characteristic complaints would be propagandistic dross if it wasn’t for her visionary esthetic, which eloquently conveys the suffering she is at bottom obsessed with. This esthetic recapitulates the expressionist sense of abysmal space; uncomprehending human beings are dropped into its infinity, where they blindly act out their squalid little dramas. This black void represents Coe’s unconscious fatalism as much as it does her consciousness of social violence. Sometimes the scenes are Hieronymus Bosch–like, as in US. Successfully Bombs Mental Hospital in Grenada, 1984. At other times they have a quality of haunting emptiness that recalls Goya’s black paintings, as in Malcolm X and the Slaughterhouse, 1985. In still other instances they have the corrosive, manic intensity of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s urban space, as in It’s Not Safe, 1983. Even in her most explicitly political works, such as Ronald Raygun Speaks in a Glass Booth Under the Berlin Wall, 1987, the black space hovers above the crowd of police and demonstrators like a vulture—an expectant Death knowing it will always have the last word.

It is only Coe’s visionary esthetic that saves her from the black and white clichés evident in her tender idealization of victims and the unrelenting monstrousness of her social reality. Works like NO People’s Republic, 1983, for all their poignancy, are little better than the idées fixes presented on propaganda posters. Indeed, works like this one that are striking in their own way, but tend toward cartoonish clarity in their informing mentality, and sometimes in their method, abound in the exhibition. Not only do these works sell short the profound sense of suffering evident in her more esthetically self-conscious works, but they even betray their spirit of incisive, historically specific, social criticality. Without their infernal, nightmarish quality, Coe’s works bespeak a platitudinous belief in the historical necessity of revolution.

Coe, I think, is torn between a wish to communicate instantaneously to as large an audience as possible, and thus to use a public and invariably clichéd language, and a desire to make “high” art, that is, art so dense with visual substance and subtle meaning that it cannot be exhausted at first sight. When she manages to balance these impulses, she takes her place among the Expressionist masters, but when she makes images for “the cause,” her works dwindle to militant cartoons, lacking even the saving grace of Daumier’s wit.

Donald Kuspit