Caroline Coon, A Sweet Lob from 25 Yards, 2009, oil on canvas, 60 1⁄4 × 48".

Caroline Coon, A Sweet Lob from 25 Yards, 2009, oil on canvas, 60 1⁄4 × 48".

Caroline Coon

On December 13, 2019, the day that Boris Johnson secured his victory in the UK general election, I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be angry at entitlement, capitalism, and state-sanctioned inequality; at populism, bigotry, and dumb-as-all-hell patriotism. But, truthfully, I was numb. I was cold, hungover, emptied out. My present offered me nothing. I offered nothing in return.

Hours after learning that the Conservative Party had obtained its largest majority since 1987, I visited “The Great Offender,” an exhibition of fourteen paintings by Caroline Coon. In part, I was drawn to Coon’s history of countercultural politics: She has campaigned for women’s rights since the 1960s; was central to London’s punk scene, managing the Clash from 1978 to 1980; and in 1967 cofounded Release, a legal-advice agency for those arrested on drug charges.

But, more than anything, I needed to feel the proximity of other things, oblivious things, things that knew nothing of my country’s irremediable divisions. Entering the show, however, I found division. Compositionally, the work, which ranged in date from 1996 to 2017 and in subject from beachgoers to sex workers, could have been separated into two groups: outside and inside, public and private—the distinction a physical and metaphysical one, as Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space (1958), that “has the sharpness of the dialectics of yes and no, which decides everything.”

While interior space can denote refuge, for Coon it is claustrophobic, ill at ease. The Family, 1996, inverts the image and idea of domestic life: The painting portrays parents and children quarreling in a handsome living room. The room, however, is upside down—with the floor and a set of furniture looming above the family’s heads—and empty of life and love. In works from Coon’s “Brothel Series,” 1996–, depraved men lurk within dim, chintzy hotels, eager to enact their violent fantasies on the sex workers who attend to them. On the wall of Choosing—Before the Parade, 1998, in which a lecherous quintet peruses available women, we see a painting within a painting: Hans Baldung Grien’s Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), 1517.

In each work, light, or its encroachment, is insistent. Shade-haunted corners, and those lurking within, are repeatedly threatened by the sharp-edged beams—emanating from lamps, windows, mirrors—that illuminate the svelte bodies of Coon’s sex workers. This is light as the soft suggestion of another world, a better world, one that, to a viewer emerging from Coon’s sordid interiors into her oneiric al fresco scenes, seems to burst from nature. It bursts, also, from the many bare bodies in these paintings. For Coon’s is a pantheistic erotics, one in which each entity feeds and is fed by the next.

In See, He Is Absolutely Gorgeous!, 2002, a sunbathing woman, legs akimbo, turns her head to gaze upon a radiant young man toweling himself nearby; A Sweet Lob from 25 Yards, 2009, depicts soccer players of proudly ambiguous genders levitating around a ball, their limbs lithe, layered. In contrast to the clandestine tenants of Coon’s brothels, these bodies—stripped, shimmering, always shredded—are liberated, virtuous. Adonis Beach, 1999, sets five godlike surfers at the threshold of the ocean. Statuesque, superb, they are gatekeepers of this extra-world, one of motion, refraction, cerulean blue.

Years ago, Coon was admiring the delphiniums in her neighbor’s garden. To her, they spoke of “paradise, infinity, and happiness.” The artist attempted to grow her own, but, for some time, her garden yielded little. In Self with Delphinium age 70, 2016, the artist stands naked in her studio, brandishing one of the first of the flowers to bloom. Behind her is a shadow; in front, a glow. In the context of “The Great Offender,” bifurcated by a dialectic of division, the self-portrait read as a crossing. Out of darkness into light, and all the life it brings.