It's often said that all art is political. But overtly political, agenda-driven art threatens to reign in a viewer's imagination and squelch interpretation. In other words, it undermines the very sense of freedom we associate with art.
The British-born artist Sue Coe has built a career out of persuasive political art. Coe certainly gives a voice to the disenfranchised, from exploited migrant laborers to marine life whose natural habitats have been destroyed by industrial waste. But her buckshot spray of scathing criticism never exactly aims at any moving targets. A series of black-and-red ink prints on display in Graphic Witness, a survey of recent work at Pacific Northwest College of Art's Feldman Gallery, risks lapsing into reductive, clichéd critiques. Crossing the aesthetic sensibilities of German Expressionist woodcuts with DIY concert fliers, one print, "Car Bomb," inevitably pictures an exploding sedan and a mother shielding her child from the blast in the foreground. In terms of message, there's nothing for the viewer to digest. But in its crude lines and referential figuration, the piece engages a viewer formally—which is precisely how Coe's work rises above mere propaganda.
Technically, Coe seems to possess few limitations. In addition to the ink prints, Graphic Witness showcases the stylistic diversity of her illustrations. Like the prints, a series of drawings based on interviews with HIV-positive female prison inmates references German Expressionism. In "Michelle, HIV Positive, Imprisoned for Murder," for instance, a haggard pregnant woman staggers through a city street, bathed in lamplight. As jagged buildings with grotesque faces encroach upon her, it at once conjures and subverts the glamour of Ernst Kirchner's depictions of bustling nightlife. In "Prison Journal: Pam," a beaten prostitute's body is splayed across a dark alley, calling to mind equally disturbing imagery in Max Beckmann's triptychs.
Coe's most sophisticated work, though, is taken from her series Sheep of Fools. While the title obviously implies mindless conformity, these images contain the kind of intrigue her more straightforward work lacks. Depicting an enormous ocean liner transporting thousands of sheep, which burns and sinks at sea, Coe conflates issues of animal cruelty, slave-like labor, and industrial conquest into a single surreal narrative. Like pages from an especially dark fairy tale, these images jar the intractable social ills Coe confronts free from reality. It's that sense of fantastic displacement that allows a viewer to see them with a fresh, unhardened perspective.