What I’m Reading: Artist Sue Coe

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]

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.     

The image at the head of this post, “Going Down the Social,” 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.


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. 


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.   


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, 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 [Unquiet Ghost], 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 [Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women]. 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 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 deprecating 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: New and Selected Stories] 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. 


  • 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. 


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

Its all images, woodcuts, with no words. 


  • 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.   

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