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Sue Coe

Sue Coe Interview, New York

I met up with Sue Coe at Galerie St. Etienne, New York where she is showing "Mad As Hell" an exhibition, which includes new work, and some classics including selected art from her new book ‘Cruel’. Sue's book, an illustrated indictment of what humankind is doing to the rest of the animal nations, includes essays, "country fair" "pecked to death" and "Gassing Hogs" amongst others. I spoke to Sue following her book signing at Mooshoes, the vegan bookstore in New York where we discussed her work, reportage and visual journalism in general.

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GE: In a recent article in Creative Review (march 2012) ‘Where is the content? Where is the comment?’ Lawrence Zeegen suggested illustration had “become entrenched in navel-gazing and self-authorship” that it was time to engage with the big issues and the world outside. do you think that is what is happening? More and more Illustration becoming self-initiated and hardly any of it dealing with the big issues.

SC: I don’t see that as any different from commercial illustration anyway, its all safe, self referential, using irony. What’s happening with the self-initiated work is what’s happening in the industry anyway, it’s reflected in the bigger corporate world.

GE: Was there a sense a few years ago that illustrators wanted to do issue based work.

SC: No I think the social conditions reflect the resistance, and now in America we have social conditions that are akin to the 1930’s and we’ll have art work that reflects that, so you’re going to see a lot more artwork with content, so the trivialisation of illustration is just reflected in the market as a whole, but I do see that changing.

GE: More in America or the UK?

SC: I don’t know anything about the UK I can’t say, but in America there is a much bigger demand for content for narrative for addressing major issues. We’re in the biggest sixth extinction the world’s ever seen, we can’t just ignore this and just do our self referential crap, so that is being addressed partly because of the internet and also because of the economy, and people are waking up because of the state of the economy.

You don’t mind selling out if you’re going to get paid for it, but now you’re not even getting paid for it, so there’s nothing in it for a young artist other than to go for broke literally and create, to align themselves with more community activism.

That’s not just my false humanism or optimism speaking I’m saying that social conditions will create the resistance.

GE: We’re not seeing much of it in the UK.

SC: Well you see all those riots.

GE: No, in terms of illustrators and artists making issue based visual essay.

SC: But that’s bad education, that’s what art schools should be pushing them into recording because that’s history in the making.

GE: That’s something I’m interested in, getting students to think about.

SC: It’s a slow process because of the class system, which is all about class deference, you’re supposed deny your actual reality of poverty, so all these factors combined will make for art of the resistance, because you either resist or you go under.

GE: Earlier we spoke about the fact that there isn’t much commissioning for that kind of work

SC: Because media is a big corporation, they’re not independent of capitalism as a whole but you work from every angle. There’s not such blatant censorship that one can’t work, but they are also art students, the art directors, they also come out of these new visions and that will be reflected,
That’s really optimistic –laughs

GE: Do you think visual essay, reportage should be subjective, or should it be objective.

SC: I think a personal obsession can become a public preoccupation very quickly so you obviously have to have a passion for the subject matter because what we do is so labour intensive, and technique is a test of sincerity so it has to be good.

GE: There are some examples of recent work within reportage and visual essay, coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan, which are in effect purely great drawings of for instance, tanks, but no sense of the artist taking a position.

SC: But Neutrality is a position and it’s no longer a position we can afford.

GE: Milton Glaser talked about an objective reality in respect of illustrative journalism and a neutral quality intensifying a sense of being real.

SC: Well Milton Glaser rejected my first work when I came to America, so I have no respect for anything he says, whatsoever, he can piss off, go to hell. It’s not even on my radar someone like Milton Glaser, so he’s not of any interest, its irrelevant to me what he thinks.

GE: In a recent discussion I had with Marshall Arisman at the School of Visual Arts, he suggested to me there wasn’t as much work commercially for certain visual essay projects partly because of space and money, but also because artwork as opposed to photography represents time, and the question doesn’t become the reality of the subject it becomes why would this artist make these pictures. He said, “When I look at photographs I don’t think of the photographer but when I look at, for instance, ‘Slaughterhouse,’ I think of Sue Coe”

SC: No, sorry Marshal, none of these people coming tonight are looking at Sue Coe, they are looking at the content of the work they are activists mostly, they are not relating to me or my drawing style, they are desperate to see the content.

GE: But the general public, if it was commissioned for a magazine, do you think they would be less able to engage with it because they are thinking my god, this person has…

SC: No, I think they are more likely to engage with the subject matter because it’s a drawing, it has the intimacy of drawing the photograph doesn’t have. I mean Marshall, his style is all over it, his persona is all over the work, and he does magnificent work, its not reportage, I mean Marshall’s early work was reportage, so no you have to have the humility to have people see through your eyes. You’re not looking into my eyes and seeing blue, I want you to see through my eyes, what I’m looking at, that’s my job as a reportage artist, I’m calling myself that, and obviously my style is a given, I’ve worked in the prison system, where they know my style, they don’t know anything about art but they want to see the content of their lives, so they understand the artist has a certain technique. Then you move through that and you look at what I’m looking at. When I look at Marshall’s work I see a Marshall Arisman.

GE: I’m really interested in the drawings made on location. In the book ‘Cruel’, you’ve examples of your location drawings, which are great. Is this something that you feel you always need to do?

SC: Absolutely, if I can I will.

GE: Your work is very interpretive.

SC: Yes but the guys are looking at me drawing them and they are seeing I’m not making it derogatory about them and I’m asking them if I’m doing anything wrong then please tell me, and when I did the HIV work I show it to the person, and I show it to the prisoners before it’s published it’s their life, its not my life. And I say is there anything inaccurate, anything you object to and it will never see the light of day. It’s their story.

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GE: (relating to the meat industry) You’re not against them in particular you’re against the industry as a whole. Do they see you as a threat?

SC: No. Because I’m giving them a portrait of themselves they can have any of the work.

GE: Do they recognise what they are doing is not a good thing?

SC: Yes, and they are very interested in what I’ve done.

At this point a Shop assistant comes out “DO YOU WANT SHOES”!

GE: “yes we want shoes, WE WANT THE SHOES!”

GE: Finally, the visual Essay course at SVA in its early years seemed to be much more about visual journalism and issue-based work.

SC: Well this again comes down to the class structure. When you look at early art schools, and this is happening again now when you have the vets coming back and going to art schools. You’re getting a new kind of student, this isn’t the bourgeois student that goes to the SVA, and I’m not saying that in a derogative way, but SVA and Parsons are very wealthy students, there are few scholarship students, so the whole population of art schools are changing as more ex vets are going into art schools, and they want to do content, so they are reflecting their economic class. If you go to a state school they are desperate to hear about this, they are desperate to do content because they come from poverty.

Interview finishes as publisher complains to me, ‘Give her a break, give her a break!’
Sue turns to go inside Mooshoes to buy shoes and sign some more books, before catching a bus 200 miles to her car for the remainder of the journey to the Catskill Mountains where she lives and works.

GE: You really live out in the sticks don’t you?

SC: The sticks! We don’t call it the sticks out here. We call it rural America.

Thanks to Sue Coe who was very welcoming and generous with her time.

Gary Embury
April 2012