New York

Sue Coe

Galerie St. Etienne

Though loudly protesting the conditions they depict (the hell of an underfunded AIDS clinic, homeless foraging for edible trash, our burlesque of a justice system), Sue Coe’s dreary images also mourn their own powerlessness. As with much socially concerned art, these works badly want to be political action itself, but achieve little more than a gloomy didacticism.

It’s laudable that Coe produces illustrations of her experiences mainly for mass-circulation periodicals like the New York Times, The Village Voice, and The New Yorker. The considerable amount of tribute this means of disseminating her work receives, however, suggests the degree to which Coe’s gesture of “self-sacrifice” makes up a large part of her cachet, one that can be recuperated later by the gallery and museum—the institutions on which the work actually depends. In the end, when viewed in a gallery context, Coe’s work can’t help but give rise to speculation about how the “political” circulates as currency within the art world.

Questions of political effectiveness aside, Coe’s expressionism is distinctive—almost invariably it takes the form of a dramatically lit space in which misery and neglect sculpt the objects and inhabitants. Infectious Disease Clinic, 1994, is typical: seriously ill men, depicted in bleak washes of gouache, charcoal, ink, and graphite, are crowded shoulder-to-shoulder and bathed in a near-death-experience light. Inscribed at the bottom are notes taken by Coe, the dialogue between two men: “Up to sixty patients a day. ‘They told me yesterday. . . . I’m still in shock.’ ‘They told me six years ago, and I’m still alive and healthy. I’ll give you my phone number, there are support groups. Call me, I can help.’” This Dickensian mix of cartoonish melodrama and reportage articulates both a critique and a reproach, but it also fictionalizes the scene’s horror, giving it the air of a still from some dystopian animation short. One wants to press “play” in order to set the scenes in motion, as much to get it all over with as to see how these nightmares will devolve.

Perhaps the stoicism required to bear witness to these social hells suppresses too much feeling, which then erupts in the work as unintended overkill. And perhaps this is also why Coe’s portrait of two other physicians succeeds most effectively, since it amounts to a kind of double self-portrait—healer and healer as victim. Kaposi’s Sarcoma, 1993, portrays one doctor in the act of solemnly placing his bare hands on the naked, lesion-encrusted back of a seated man. The text reads, “He positioned himself to me, like he wanted to be touched. He was also a doctor, and my friend. People with full-blown AIDS are rarely touched. I was disgusted and frightened by the diseased flesh. I felt like I was putting myself at risk. It would have been the worst thing to do, if I would have put on rubber gloves. He went into deep sleep. An aide walked in, I was embarrassed, it’s not something doctors do. Two days later, he was dead.” The quiet precision of this testimony contrasts with the eerie light that frames this scene—the light of a spiritually neutral annunciation.

Thad Ziolkowski