What I’m Reading: Artist Sue Coe

This week in the New Yorker (or on the website anyway – it may be in print as well), Evan Ross writes about “Making Art in a Time of Rage.” You’d be forgiven for immediately hesitating to accept the insights of such a staid publication on matters of rage.  “What is the point of making beautiful things,” Ross asks, “or of cherishing the beauty of the past, when ugliness runs rampant?” It’s a valid question, but it also proceeds from a limited view of art’s means and purposes. This is unfair to Ross, though, for the question is a mere jumping off point. Later he observes that, “not only are intensity, beauty, and devotion insufficient to halt violence, they can become its soundtrack,” and later, “Ultimately, artists of integrity will have no choice in how they respond to the Great Besmirchment. Those who thrive on politically charged material will continue in that vein.”

Sue Coe is one such artist of integrity. The world and its injustices are a constant forge for her work, and unfortunately we’ve beached ourselves in an era that’s providing her with more stimulus than usual. I say “unfortunately” and feel sure she’d agree; there’s never yet been a shortage of inequality or injustice for an artist who’s moved by these things to respond to, and I feel sure she’d readily forego the need to produce whatever art comes in response to this more extreme version of events.     

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Sue Coe
Going Down ”The Social” (Unemployment Office) 1993. Graphite, charcoal, ink and gouache on Strathmore Bristol board. Signed, lower right. Dated, lower right, and titled, lower center. Dated “Liverpool 93,” lower right. Red “M[urder]” stamp, lower left. 29.0″ x 23 1/8″ (73.7 x 58.8 cm). – Image via Galerie St. Etienne [http://www.gseart.com/gse-pages/Current_Exhibition.php]

The image above is part of Galerie. St. Etienne’s exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution: American Artists and the Communist Party.” Several of Coe’s pieces are there, including some recent prints made in response to the November Presidential election. You’ll find images of those below, and you can own copies of the prints at a reasonable price (an ongoing commitment of Coe’s – see the work for sale on her site if you doubt me). I asked her what she’s reading in these unusual times, and she told me I’d be sorry, because the list was so extensive. But no, in that, at least, she was wrong: 

After the Trump/Bannon coup, I resolved to read more physical books, not read books and articles online, as feel so mentally assaulted by the horror of America’s political situation.

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It Can Happen Here, 2016 Lithograph. Image courtesy of Sue Coe

It made concentrated reading online, fragmented and so full of anxiety, as one is interrupted constantly, by the latest Trump abominations and the reactions to them. My reaction to Trump is in making artwork. It’s labor intensive work, retweeting is not work, it takes time away from work. 

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So, I have limited my time on all digital devices down to reading two newspapers a day. It’s strange, as it requires carrying actual books around in a backpack, when go to demonstrations, and falling asleep with a book under the pillow. I should have done this long before Trump. My friends who are writers are returning to typewriters and longhand.

My reading at present, consists of four stacks of books.

First stack are my beloved friends, who have read and reread since childhood. These books provide comfort and are a source of happiness. I reach for them when am depressed and overwhelmed and need reach for the mute switch in my brain, rather than tossing and turning. There is always an Orwell in that group, either his essays, or Animal Farm. He is my favorite writer, if had to choose one, just as Soutine is my favorite painter.   Then there is Bertolt Brecht, my guide, the poems from 1913-1956, which are brilliant. He had two voices within him that struggle  for dominance, his obligation and responsibility as a political activist, not to be solely about ‘Truth’ but the truth of propaganda to change the world. As with all creative political people, those choices were taken out of his hands, in his statement to HUAC for example.   

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Bertolt Brecht, 1954. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-W0409-300 / Kolbe, Jörg / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The warring contradictions in his poems of ideology and the human condition are painful to witness and make him a great poet. Orwell had the same struggle, but he generally chose truth, despite the consequences, and when he did not, he made transparent, the messy process of living within contradictions he could never resolve. His essay about shooting the elephant, is one of the greatest pieces of writing ever penned, his murder of a beautiful animal, changed the trajectory of his life. As he says, people become the mask they are forced to wear.   Then the complete works of Sherlock Holmes, as there is nothing quite like traveling back to foggy gas lit Victorian London and looking at those Sydney Paget illustrations. Conan Doyle just wanted to kill off Holmes as he was so bored with him,  but was forced to resurrect him by public demand.   He was so bored with Holmes and Watson that he forgot his own narratives, to the glee of his millions of devotees who alight upon his mistakes like locusts. I just read last night a short story by Graham Greene, called “The Destructors,” written in the 1950’s.  It perfectly aligns with and illuminates the Trump/Bannon mentality. An old man gives a gang of boys some sweets as a kindness, which places him on their radar for destruction.

Second stack consists of books that require serious commitment. They cannot be skimmed, they cannot be speed read.  In that stack are the works of Adam Hochschild.  He is a historian and journalist, I must have a pencil and paper on hand, to take notes.  His level of research, is stunning, yet the books are elegant and readable, very human and compassionate, not didactic.  His book on WW1 To End All Wars, is a marvel, he manages to include the rise of the Suffragettes and the Labour Party, as an organic whole,  then King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains, reveal the staggering amount of research he did, and still he doesn’t bog down the reader, but keeps us hooked with the device of key characters. I just finished his Stalin book, to help me understand the present rise of thuggish strong men to power. Its one of his earlier works, so is more accessible for a faster read. It consists of interviews with Gulag survivors and the author’s travels to the locations of the work camps, which are not on any maps.  I will start his book on the Spanish Civil War next, Spain in Our Hearts.  In that stack is Scott Anderson’s Lawrence In Arabia. It’s waiting to be read, and will require the same commitment to understand the colonized western mind mapping of the middle east.  As an artist I can look at any art,  see how its done and learn from the technique, absorb it, but the skill of Hochschild as writer is so formidable it cannot be replicated, only admired. 

Third Stack consists of books, which originate from reading reviews in LRB, anything my friends deem of interest, we discuss and then mull over which one of us, is actually going to buy the book. I just ordered the history of Ravensbruck Womens’ concentration camp, by Sarah Helm. My interest doesn’t include Rushdie, which is one of my friend’s favorite authors, and she just can’t understand why I cannot appreciate his work.  Have tried, but no.  We all just read [The Pigeon Tunnel] the le Carré autobiography, which is a splendid read, its surprisingly up to date, no sentiment, no nostalgia,  a real insight into the psychology of government spy games.  His is a self depreciating and witty voice,  a very lean writer.  Unread so far, is a book I wouldn’t pick up, but as it came from a friend, I know I will like, Blasphemy by Sherman Alexie.

Fourth Stack is research.  As I make books myself, am obligated to read everything I can get my hands on about a subject and devour it. This is work reading. I read everything, memorize most of it, don’t discuss it, and then put it away, under a mental shroud, and  create my own version. It’s not what I read and remember, it’s what is left that I don’t know which am curious about, which will drive the next book. Writing is torture. When a new book of mine comes out, I look at it for a day, and then hide it, as it’s the memory of so much labor. It’s not something I want to remember,  see again, let alone talk about, which makes publicizing the darn book difficult. Books exist as their own persons. They will either find people who cherish them or not. Can’t remember how many books I have done. They are all art books, non fiction with text and images. The latest book, which came out last month, surprised me. It’s called The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto. 

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  • Cover of The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, courtesy of Sue Coe

I wanted to do a version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, but in my version, the farmed animals achieve victory, and it turned out to be an adorable little creature, a pocket book. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

Its all images, woodcuts, with no words. 

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  • Plate from The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, Courtesy of Sue Coe

It doesn’t seem like anything I could ever have invented, as the second half is full of joy. It’s in my pocket and by my bed, in book stack number one, I keep looking at it, the novelty of new book has not worn off.   

Sam Sweet, All Night Menu Vol. 3 Excerpt

If you’re like me, you’ve been patiently awaiting Sam Sweet’s next volume in his All Night Menu series since, 2014 or 15 (the dates get fuzzy after awhile). The point is, it’s a continuation of an idiosyncratic but essential project: to map the Los Angeles area via one man’s connection to certain places, people, dates and events. He’s done so through a series of booklet-sized releases on brown paper with black ink and illustrations. They’re simple visually, but there’s something defiantly concrete about the presentation, a forthrightness that heads off any charge that the writer is making too much of minutiae, of events lacking in scale. Sweet writes that, “The city is vast and amorphous. This booklet is small and precise. It is not a walking tour, a visitor’s guidebook, or a street atlas. It is a periodic index of lost heroes and miniature histories. Its only objective is to make the invisible equal to the visible.”

You can find an excerpt from the new volume here. It’s a perfect illustration of Sweet’s point, and I dare say a pretty irresistible peek at the project. It portrays the dignity of the personal, struggling against the irresistible forces of policy and social change, as here in the excerpt from “501 N. Mednik:”

The Maravilla gangs multiplied in the 1980s and Mednik became a combat zone.  Stray rounds left scars on the rebote, but like a church, Michi’s remained unscathed. Never robbed, never tagged. Maras in L.A. County Jail would use their one payphone privilege to call the store, knowing Michi would always be there to accept the charges and relay a message to anyone in the varrio. Sometimes she’d be asked to hold a paper bag behind the counter. Her son implored her otherwise. “People think you’re involved,” he said. She shooed him off. The men outside had once peered wide-eyed into her candy counter. They were her customers. “Besides,” she said, “I never look inside.” 

The $1 sandwiches she started making for club members were so popular that every day someone would come in for a “Michi sandwich,” though they were never on a menu. In the face of rising costs and supermarket competition, she refused to raise prices. “The people can’t afford that,” she told her son, who later discovered she was supporting the store with her life savings. In a boom year, a Korean developer offered them a million for the lot. Thomas was incredulous when he found out they turned it down. Tommy shrugged. “I’m waiting for two million.” As Michi got older and smaller, the shelves seemed to grow taller around her. The wooden grabber from the ‘30s leaned against towers of cereal that nearly touched the ceiling. She developed painful sores from standing all day. Each day, an aging gangster from Lomita Mara would walk over from the projects to put healing lotion on her aching feet.

 

The good news? All three volumes are still available. The bad news? Volume 1 is all but gone – these are only editions of 500, after all, and they’re hand numbered and come with a note from the author. You can see how the process unfolds here. You can also find a little more from Sam Sweet in the New Yorker.

  • John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Writer John Andrew Fredrick

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  • Photo by Steve Keros

John Andrew Fredrick rests sometime. I mean, he probably does. I’m almost sure he has to now and again. The trouble is, it’s hard to prove he does, based on his output as a writer and musician (you may have heard of The Black Watch – if not, remedy this oversight).

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For the past several years in particular, he’s released either a book and an album, or two albums, or two books. 2017 sees a novel, Your Caius Aquilla, a comic epistolary novel set in ancient Rome, and Fucking Innocent, on Wes Anderson’s early films.

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You can preorder Your Caius Aquilla here, and Fucking Innocent here. Maybe I’ve not made myself clear: you should preorder them. It’s not an offer you can’t refuse or anything – I don’t have that kind of power – but it’s good sense to get them now, in all their first edition glory.

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Now, on the topic of his resting, we come to the fact that, no, not every minute of his time is devoted to making things. He spends a lot of it reading. So, when you ask him what he’s reading and why, you get good value for dollar. [Ed. note: no dollars changed hands between the writer and Mr. Fredrick. He gave generously of his own time]. For that matter, talk to him about pretty much anything. Take it away, John Andrew Fredrick:

1) I am reading everything–and thus I know, in trying to read everything key that’s ever been written, that I have, at last, lost my mind.  To wit:  Rachel Cusk’s Outline (she is the new Proust)

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Henry Green’s underappreciated Caught 

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Woolf’s Orlando (the only one I’ve not read), Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress (on account of David Foster Wallace posthumously told-me-so), three biographies of Keats (Gittings, Motion, Roe)–as I just spent a glorious month in Hampstead.

2).  See comment above.  Plus/also/too/as well:  Keats was one of my emphases in “rad” school–gotta keep that up, don’t you know.  Just like I must keep my streak going of reading Chaucer’s Troilus every other year (another specialty on the way to the superfluous PhD).   Oh!  Ulysses–my fifth and final try.  With the Stuart Gilbert crib.

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Wish me luck!!! Hahaha.  It’s do or die for old Jimmy Joyce.  And life’s too short to spend it living rather than reading.   Cheers, John Andrew

John Berger dead at 90; Dore Ashton at 88

Some weeks ago, when John Berger died, I meant to offer a little tribute to him. He was a major figure as art writers go (Ways of Seeing, and so on), and a talented poet and novelist. Soon enough the window to do so seemed to have passed, or I was too busy and preoccupied to do so, and I let the idea go without marking his departure. Now the art critic Dore Ashton has passed, and I don’t mean to let that go by unmarked. She had a remarkable career, one filled with perceptive and connected work – connected in the sense that she was deeply familiar with key figures like Philip Guston, and in that numerous of her works were natural progressions that built on what she’d previously done. Now is every bit a proper time to read her remarkable book on Abstract Expressionism, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning, for observations like this one: “The circles of artists in New York in the late twenties and early thirties were often generated, or at least stimulated, by the energetic foreign born.” Food for thought, that. Ms. Ashton was eighty-eight at the time of her death. Berger was ninety. What legacies they left us, what brilliant, extensive bodies of work. What better benediction than this poem of Berger’s?

When I open my wallet

to show my papers

pay money or check the time of a train

I look at your face.

The flower’s pollen

is older than the mountains

Aravis is young

as mountains go.

The flower’s ovules

will be seeding still

when Aravis then aged

is no more than a hill.

The flower in the heart’s

wallet, the force

of what lives us

outliving the mountain.

And our faces, my heart, brief as photos.