Tag Archives: Sue Coe

Flock and Fable

Flock & Fable: Animals and Identity in Contemporary Art, curated by Amie Robinson, runs at New York’s Chelsea Art Museum to July 31.

The exhibit presents the works of eleven artists who use animal imagery to investigate forms of identity: racial, sexual, spiritual, social, political, psychological, and moral. In identifying with the animal, the artists create modern day fables. Traditionally, fables seek to instruct, to inform and bestow on their audience a “moral maxim, social duty, or political truth.” They aim at the improvement of human conduct, at revealing personal and social identities, and do so by concealing their agenda in the guise of fictitious characters—animals.

PastoralRacial and sexual identities and stereotypes are conveyed in the work of Kara Walker and Marc Swanson. Kara Walker’s provocative silhouettes confront our perceptions of identity in terms of history, culture, gender and race. The wall painting Pastoral portrays the metaphorical “black sheep” as an ambiguous hybrid being that is “part human, part animal, part black and part white.” It exposes stereotypes of ethnic identity, revealing colonialist myths depicting the sexuality of black women as animalistic. Sexual identity is also explored through personal iconography in the work of Marc Swanson. Covering two stag heads—a symbol of maleness—in rhinestones, he confronts coming to terms with his own homosexuality and his politically conservative background.

The Speed of your TongueReligious and spiritual identity is explored in the work of several artists, including Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Graciela Iturbide and Kimowan Mclain. Patricia Bellan-Gillen appropriates animal symbols and icons from various religions. Ideas from doctrine, faith and myth fuel the work and she invites the viewer to instinctually find their own autobiographies in her paintings. The haunting images of Graciela Iturbide portray Mexican cemeteries swarmed by locusts and somber skies with flocks of birds as mythical human spirits: “I testify the poetic dimension of men and magic, and I see a kind of mystic of the every day life.” Filling thin, swaying paper walls with images of moths, biblical metaphors for the ephemeral, Kimowan Mclain’s work reminds us that our existence is temporary. He writes, “I know people like moths. They are not imbalanced by an overly zealous devotion to light, but are equally weighted by the substance of dark. Shall we brush these people aside as if they were dry, brittle wings? Or clean away their dark histories and mournful days?”

bulletproofglassPolitical truths and social identity are evident in the fables of Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, Andrew Johnson, and Rosemary Laing. Cornelia Hesse-Honegger sets her tales in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and in the shadows of international nuclear power plants and her cast of characters is unfortunately not fictional; it is rather exquisitely illustrated insects suffering numerous mutations from the effects of radiation in their environment. The frog in The Closed Mouth, a large oil painting by artist Andrew Johnson, is far from becoming a fairy tale prince. This enormously bloated creature, isolated in darkness, is an allegory of consumption and a metaphor for America’s foreign policy. The photographs of Rosemary Laing also portray birds in flight; yet among them floats a woman in a wedding dress high above the mountains of Australia. They stir in us our desire to become animal, to fly: “Flight sits in our consciousness as a kind of fantasy or dream. It is a metaphorical notion. Children dream of flying. It is a very escapist notion to be able to fly. Super heroes fly.” Upon closer inspection however, there are bullet holes in the woman’s chest. Like Icarus, she is falling.

Emotional and psychological identities are clear in the work of Helen Altman and Kojo Griffin. The various animals in Helen Altman’s uniquely rendered torch drawings are isolated from their flock, alone, defenseless, floating in a sea of white and consumed by nothingness. The viewer can not help to feel compassion, sympathy, and fear for the animal; and perhaps to remember a similar feeling in their own lives, thus ultimately feeling empathy. In his psychologically charged paintings, Kojo Griffin uses anthropomorphic figures, human bodies with animal heads, to convey the human condition. Placed in an ambiguous space, the characters interact and engage us in an open, and often violent or awkward narrative. He “scratches the surface of societal scabs, making do with the puss or what is often left out of the fictions: shame, impotence, cruelty, hysteria, rage, failure, hostility, anxiety, fear and the abject.”

Factory FarmDo animals lose their identity, however, if we impose upon them our own? In his book The Postmodern Animal, Steve Baker writes that, “the representational, symbolic and rhetorical uses of the animal must be understood to carry as much conceptual weight as any idea we may have of the ‘real’ animal, and must be taken just as seriously.” Sue Coe addresses the reduction of the animal in her series Porkopolis. In sketches and drawings created in slaughterhouses (where photography is forbidden) she gives names and honors the identities of the otherwise tagged, numbered masses of the factory farm industry. Her work questions criticism that animal imagery is too sentimental, claiming that these accusations are made only to “prevent an outcry against cruelty, to silence criticism against bad science.”


Kara Walker, Pastoral
Patricia Bellan-Gillen, The Speed of Your Tongue
Rosemary Laing, Bulletproofglass #4
Sue Coe,  Factory Farm

From Chelsea Art Museum


Everything But The Squeal

The JungleThe world at this moment produces enough food to feed the world’s population.

And one million more…

Upton Sinclair was a desperately poor young socialist hoping to remake the world when he settled down in a tar-paper shack in Princeton Township and penned his Great American Novel.

He called it The Jungle, filled it with page after page of nauseating detail he had researched about the meat-packing industry, and dropped it on an astonished nation in 1906.

An instant best-seller, Sinclair’s book reeked with the stink of the Chicago stockyards. He told how dead rats were shoveled into sausage-grinding machines; how bribed inspectors looked the other way when diseased cows were slaughtered for beef, and how filth and guts were swept off the floor and packaged as “potted ham.” And then there is the story of a stockyard worker who fell into a vat of lard, and was processed with it.

Within months, the aroused — and gagging — public demanded sweeping reforms in the meat industry.

President Theodore Roosevelt was sickened after reading an advance copy. He called upon Congress to pass a law establishing the Food and Drug Administration and, for the first time, setting up federal inspection standards for meat.

“It seemed to me that the walls of the mighty fortress of greed were on the point of cracking,” Sinclair wrote.

Upton Beall Sinclair was, for all his socialist thought, the very model of the all-American kid. He grew up in New York City, the son of poor but proud parents. Barely into his teens, he became a freelancer, writing boys’ adventure tales. He eventually pounded out 30,000 words of dime-novel drama every week, even while he attended City College of New York.

Sinclair aspired to be a great writer of serious books, but he admitted that all his hack work led him to use too many clichés and exaggerations.

“It’s not what I would consider great literature,” said his biographer. “There isn’t much character development in his works or subtlety. What he was good at was descriptions … of turning real-life situations into fiction.”

The young writer had been searching for something to give him hope in life, and he found it in the revolutionary doctrine of socialism. He had read of a meat-packing strike in Chicago, and knew he had a good plot for the first great socialist novel.

For two months in 1904, Sinclair wandered the Chicago stockyards – a place he would write of as “Packingtown.” He mingled with the foreign-born “wage slaves” in their tenements and heard how they’d been mistreated and ripped off. He saw for himself the sloppy and dangerous practices in the packing houses and the mind-numbing, 12-hour-a-day schedule.

The Jungle tells the story of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant working in Packingtown.

Jurgis sees his American dream of a decent life dissolve into nightmare as his job hauling steer carcasses in the stockyards leaves him bone-weary and unable to support his family.
He loses his job when he beats up his boss, furious at discovering the cad seduced his wife; then he loses the wife to disease and his son to drowning.

But Jurgis finds rebirth upon joining the socialist movement, and the book closes with a socialist orator shouting: “Organize! Organize! Organize! … CHICAGO WILL BE OURS!”

It was stirring, melodramatic stuff, but five publishers found it too politically hot to handle and turned the novel down. Sinclair persisted and got Doubleday to publish it in February 1906.

The Jungle, in all its sordid detail, was soon acclaimed as the most revolutionary piece of fiction of the age. In London, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill said the book “pierces the thickest skull and most leathery heart.”

Mostly, however, the politicians ignored the anti-capitalist plot of the book and focused on eight pages describing the sickening standards of meat packing. Roosevelt sent his own agents to Chicago to investigate whether meat packing was as bad as Sinclair described. The conditions were actually a hundred times worse, the agents reported back.

Chicago Stockyards

The president invited Sinclair to the White House and solicited his advice on how to make inspections safer. By June 30, Congress had passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, cracking down on unsafe food and patent medicines, and the Meat Inspection Act. To this day, our hamburgers, chicken patties and other meats are safeguarded by the same law.

Yet Sinclair considered his triumph empty. He complained that the tragedy of industrial life and his socialist preaching were being lost in the meat controversy.

“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” he said.

Read The Jungle online at Project Gutenberg

Sue Coe’s Porkopolis art