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June 1999
“ At Home” with Artist Sue Coe

By Catherine Clyne


Those familiar with the darkly expressive and socially engaged art of Sue Coe might expect her to be all sorts of things that she’s not: somber, serious or withdrawn. On the contrary, she bubbles with wit and has a love of and concern for all life. Recently I had the privilege of meeting with the artist and was given a “guided” tour of her current exhibit, The Pit: The Tragical Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Vivisector. Coe graciously allowed us to experience the magical and intense world of her recent works. But first things first: play-time with Muffin, a rescued dog who is the companion of one of the gallery’s owners. Snacks for Muffin and a gleeful jog. Not exactly what one expects at a gallery on West 57th.

One soon discovers that Coe is full of surprises. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the gallery, we begin. She explains that The Pit draws inspiration from The Four Stages of Cruelty, a series of etchings by William Hogarth (1697-1764) that depict human cruelty. Hold it, William who? Hogarth was an English artist whose “low art” gave an unflinching moral commentary on the hypocrisy and cruelty of 18th century London. Coe explains that Hogarth’s art made connections between animals, women, crime and poverty, often running full-circle. An artist, activists might think, well ahead of his time.

The protagonist in Hogarth’s Four Stages is Tom Nero, who is depicted, first, as a young boy torturing a dog by shoving an arrow up his rear (a hair-raising parallel to the Abner Louima case). Boys struggle to stop him while children torture other animals nearby in a whirlwind of cruel chaos (see Hogarth image). Secondly, we see Tom as an adult in a street scene, beating a fallen carriage horse. In the third stage, Tom “progresses” to the robbery and cruel murder of a pregnant woman. Finally, after Tom is hanged for his crimes, The Reward of Cruelty, as the fourth stage is entitled, shows his body being dissected by scientists while an audience looks on. Tom has come full circle.

The Pit: The Tragical Tale of the Rise and Fall of a Vivisector

Sue Coe’s series covers Hogarth’s four stages, but expands inward and outward to cover a wide range of issues. The Pit depicts the journey of a boy, Pat Watson (ironically named after the scientist who discovered DNA), and his companion pit bull, Pit. She explains that the model for Pit is her actual companion of the same name—“a rescued pit bull that came into my life.”

Unlike Hogarth’s stages, Coe gives context to the eventual “fall” of Pat by portraying the harshness of his home life. As a child, we watch as Pat finds Pit as a puppy in an alley outside his house. His parents argue in the background. Coe explains, that the puppy becomes “his solace, his moral compass and his only love.” Pit stands as a silent witness in the scenes of Pat’s childhood. In Their First Little Murder Watson learns that it’s OK to torture animals. A ring of boys crouch around a lighted candle as girls look on—impressed with the business at hand. Moths are attracted to the flame and Pat “learns cruelty,” Coe says, “by tearing the wings off of moths.” It’s a Wonderful Life depicts a family Christmas scene full of commotion, abuse and terror. The father brutishly swings his arm at Tom’s crouching and bruised mother, knocking the Christmas dinner into the air while Tom cowers in the background. Pit wears a cheerful hat with reindeer antlers and looks up at the father as if trying to stop the abuse. The film It’s a Wonderful Life is on television in the background, but as Coe relates, “it’s not a wonderful life at all.”

Pat’s capacity for cruelty “progresses” in She Smells Bad, where we see a pack of boys in a store surrounding a homeless woman with her Chihuahua. They spray her with air freshener canisters while holding their noses. The woman has a docile smile on her face which “escalates the cruelty that they’re getting away with,” the artist observes. Pit looks on from the background. Coe says, “None of this is ever questioned, so we get the institutionalization of cruelty, which is a religion.” To drive this point home we move to Pat’s biology classroom, where the young students are busy dissecting frogs or simply playing around with them. One girl objects to the operation and is reprimanded by the teacher. She “fails the course,” Coe explains. Here is the scientific institutionalization of cruelty where “the internal monitor is removed.” Those who are intelligent and object to cruelty “are removed from the system at an early age.”

Manhood and Separation

“Now it’s getting real serious,” Coe comments. She is a “Retard” and Will Never Tell darkly portrays Pat and teen buddies as they “test out their sexuality” on a terrified girl who has Down’s Syndrome. “She won’t tell” so it’s OK to rape and abuse her.

After Pit fails to prove herself in a hunting outing, the father kicks the dog away as Pat looks on—helpless and terrified—from the front seat of the family car. Here the paths of Pat and Pit part. Pit is left in the dust to be captured and impounded. The story follows Pit from the pound to the laboratory where she is used as a test “subject”. Finally, she lies abandoned in a room. Across the foreground hangs a rope from which dozens of dog collars swing, “all that’s left” of the other laboratory dogs.

Meanwhile, no longer having Pit around as his moral compass, Pat grows up to be a scientist and vivisector, landing a “plumb job” at “Eden Biotechnologies, Ltd.”, where young vivisectors are “Getting it right the first time.” Later, Pat the vivisector, falls asleep in the laboratory. In The Dream, ghostly animals try to tell him something, but as test subjects, their vocal chords have been severed and Pat can’t hear their message. Animals tortured by the “science” Watson practices haunt his dream—a bunny with oozing eyes, monkeys with eyes sewn shut and things protruding from their brains, a cat with her brain exposed. But Pat doesn’t hear. In Cross Your Heart and Hope to Die we enter the darkness of a laboratory and see various animals being tested on or lying in agony. In this lab, however, Pat is reunited with Pit, discovering her on the floor—broken and left to die. He holds her face in his hands.

Full Circle

Eventually we find Watson conducting deadly virus tests on monkeys. Wouldn’t you know it—he gets bitten and contracts the virus. Reminiscent of Hogarth’s Reward of Cruelty, Pat becomes a live test subject himself as he is surrounded by scientists, peering through the windows of their viral-proof gear discussing the subject. Dying at the hospice, Watson is visited by a woman who brings two dogs to cheer Pat up. Pat stretches to reach the puppy who he thinks is Pit. (And who is that we see hanging on his bedside? It’s none other than bright-eyed Muffin whom we met when we began this adventure!)

Of course, Pat dies but we find some strange comfort in the gorgeous and eerie black and white Moths Flying to the Moon. “This is in ghostland,” Coe concludes. “The moths are now free to fly into the real light—[into] the moon... not into candles.” “The ghost of Pit is still his friend, still with him, lying on [Pat’s] grave.”

For those of you who can’t make it to the exhibit at Gallerie St. Etienne (24 W. 57 St, Suite 801) by June 5th, don’t be dismayed. Almost all of this series, as well as most of her other works, can be viewed in full color at the following web site: For The Pit images, click on “Works in Progress.” Coe has generously made available for sale some of her earlier prints ($30 each!) to benefit the Farm Sanctuary. For more information, see the web site mentioned above.


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