It’s rare to see impassioned, furious, shocking art displayed locally these days. But the powerful exhibition of noted British illustrator and artist Sue Coe’s work at Georgia State University gallery may single-handedly remind you of the power of art to bear witness, perhaps change the world, or at the very least shake up your perspective.
The 65-year-old artist is featured at Georgia State University’s Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design Gallery in a selection of 77 black-and-white woodcut prints (with traces of blood red) from her book “The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto.”
Coe has spent a lifetime advocating for animal rights, a cause inspired by growing up in Staffordshire, England, next to a slaughterhouse and her own research as an artist visiting abattoirs and sketching what she sees there. Defined by social mission, other works have focused on war, labor rights, apartheid and sweatshops, documenting both human cruelty in war and racism but also the ordinary, hidden violence done to animals in labs, in factory farms and puppy mills, cruelty that is allowable because it happens away from our view.
Her stark, graphic woodblock prints often appear in books and publications like The New York Times, Time and Newsweek, as well as in galleries. Coe’s propagandistic style, with shades of Francisco Goya and Max Beckmann, is pointed, direct, which gives these works their power and sense that nothing is wasted as all visual roads lead to her ultimate message.
It’s almost impossible to look at the work on view at Georgia State without feeling shocked and shaken on some level. That shock may be expressed as righteous indignation and refusal to be hectored or swayed or it may be guilt at the many ways all of us deny inconvenient truths. Whether you buy what Coe is selling or not, I found it hard not to admire the absolute, single-minded urgency of her mission in “The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto”: to protect animals. She makes her point about our inherent hypocrisy where our relationship to animals is concerned in several images that show chickens, fish and other creatures donning kitten or puppy masks, as in “Pigs Wear Cat Masks,” hiding behind the identity of animals we protect and love.
Coe’s images take two tacks: one utopian and one nightmarish. The exhibition begins on the left, with a dark and despondent vision escalating in violence and cruelty. Lumbering men gripping fat stogies between their teeth or workers in gas masks usher terrified animals to their deaths in slaughterhouses: The animals are aware of what lies ahead, terrified and clawing for escape. The injustices are enormous in scope, but also small and ordinary, like the chef “Boiling Lobsters.”
Those nightmare images give way to Coe’s often sweetly clumsy and didactic images of anthropomorphic cows, pigs, chickens and sheep with tender, glossy eyes living in a kind of utopian harmony. They walk upright, carrying banners proclaiming “Vegan” and “Meat Free Every Day.” In a flashback to the appeals of our earliest memories of childhood, of animals as friends and helpmates, with agency and a mission — in other words, like us.
Raising tough questions, “The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto” shows Coe’s status as a still very relevant artist, demanding that we peel back the veneer of our society and look frankly at its heart and guts and the degrees of violence we will and will not tolerate.
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