Growing up next to a slaughterhouse in Hersham, England, artist Sue Coe knew something was wrong. "The smell of hogs seeped into everything--clothes and hair," she writes, and then goes on to describe a childhood encounter with a group of her neighbors, who were laughing at one moribund pig's futile efforts to escape the compound. "Maybe this was the first time I saw all was not well with the world."
After Coe left England for good, a 30-plus year career that began as an illustrator for The New York Times has landed her chilling paintings and drawings in museums around the country. The Ackland's acquisition of "Poultry Packing Fire," which depicts a 1991 catastrophe at the Imperial Food Products Processing Plant in Hamlet, N.C., that claimed the lives of 25 workers, is just a recent addition to the list. Coe visited UNC-Chapel Hill last week to deliver a public address and to work with art and ethics classes there.
Though her socially minded work has tackled disparate themes such as the Ku Klux Klan, gang rape and apartheid, she is best known for her 12-year-long project of painting the meat industry in all its gory glory. "I was just really concerned with what was being concealed. In the early part of the century, the meat industry had guided tours of its fully mechanized slaughterhouses. They were quite eager to show themselves off. That doesn't happen anymore." Armed with only her sketchbook, Coe has made hundreds of slaughterhouse visits. "If I didn't have a camera or a videotape, people didn't get intimidated. Since I only had my sketchbook, they knew it wasn't related to the workers, and they could see what I was doing all the time."
One high point in the ongoing meat project came in 1995, when Coe published Dead Meat, a book of paintings and drawings culled from six years of extensive travels. Interspersed with written accounts of her visits, the book features image after haunting image of flayed chickens, cow carcasses and pigs' feet. But although the book was hailed as a major artistic and political accomplishment, for Coe the best part has been the responses from meat activists who might not otherwise encounter avant-garde art. "These people have changed my life in their genuineness. They've given me so much hope in wanting to see this content and deal with it. I've met so many living Gandhis, and that's been the prize of doing the work."
Especially in this era of mad cow disease-inspired paranoia, Coe's artwork has gained extra urgency. But while she is glad for the attention that the scare has brought her projects, and that the disease is shedding some light on the excesses of the meat industry, she has never directly tackled mad cow disease in her creations, feeling that "to approach it from the health viewpoint would be opportunistic." In order to escape that sort of attack, she claims, "[the meat industry] can just think up some new lite pig or do whatever they want. My direction has always been the treatment of animals in these slaughterhouses, which is morally and ethically wrong." Coe's next project carries a special political resonance given the outcome of last year's election: She plans on working with HIV-positive women in the Texas prison system.
Critics compare her work to that of New Yorker cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose books Maus and Maus II illustrate the Holocaust with an elaborate allegory of cats-as-Nazis and mice-as-Jews. Are Coe's cows metaphors for people trapped in an oppressive society? "No, they're just cows," she stresses. "I'm quite content with just not making any great statement about the human condition. If my work can help, so that chickens can keep their wings, so that they're not de-beaked, so that they're not confined in such tight conditions, then I'd be happy."
Coe has long borne the burden of speaking for her work's "political" bent, which she deflects elegantly, asking, "Why aren't ambiguous artists known as political? That's the most political you can be--to ignore reality. They're the most political. I'm the least political." But despite this Frankfurt School/Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies approach to art and politics, Coe says of her relationship to academic theory simply that "I don't have one." And while critics have looked to place her work in the category of social realism, she describes her praxis as "critical realism," noting that "social realism implies a false humanism that is quite suspect." Soviet art from the late period, for example, serves a propagandistic purpose that she rejects.
So how can her art bear so direct a connection to a social movement and still retain its aesthetic autonomy? "It's the classic question of is truth beauty, or is beauty truth? I think just to reveal labor, to depict things that don't normally get depicted--that's shocking, and it can be beautiful," says Coe. "And if the content is done in a good way, that makes people more open to it. Before art can become a weapon, it first has to become art."