Dead Meat by Sue Coe
One of the paintings in Sue Coe’s startling new book, Dead Meat, reminded her of an incident from her childhood in Hersham, England. An escaped pig ran through the town square with two slaughterhouse workers hot on its heels. The townspeople laughed as the hapless men stumbled in pursuit. Coe’s mother caught the expression on the pig’s face and told her young daughter, “It’s not funny. That pig knows it’s going to die.”
Millions of well-intentioned words have delivered a variety of “meat is murder” messages, so the power of the paintings in Dead Meat is as surprising as it is nauseating. Using water colors and a mastery of light and shadow, Coe captures what she calls “the enormous agony” of slaughterhouse animals. Mostly black, gray and white, with occasional dabs of color, the paintings in Dead Meat aren’t sermons and don’t come off like lectures. After visiting 40 slaughterhouses over a six-year period, Coe simply painted what she saw—a goose draining while it hangs by the throat, sad-eyed cows awaiting slaughter. One hundred paintings later, the reader can’t help but connect a tasty bacon double cheeseburger with the suffering and violence that landed it on the plate.
Despite her impressive résumé—five books, lots of exhibitions, and appearances in The New Yorker and Raw—Coe considers herself more journalist than artist. And while lefty scribe Alexander Cockburn contributed the book’s introduction, Coe wrote the preface and the diary entries that accompany the paintings. She tells a good story about gaining admission to slaughterhouses, where cameras are banned and naysayers discouraged. “When I requested permission, they’d ask me, ‘Are you an animal rights activist?’ I’d always reply, ‘I’m English,’ and that seemed to satisfy them.”
No doubt about it, Coe’s devotion makes her a juicy target for the hipster nihilists who sniff at convictions of any kind. But those dismayed by the apathy around them will find her moral absolutism refreshing. Either way, Coe remains realistic about the prospects for art to bring reform. “All we can do is reveal the contradictions. We can’t resolve the contradictions.”
Dead Meat by Sue Coe