Profit before all life

In the late 1980s, British comics artist and graphic illustrator Sue Coe began to visit slaughterhouses in America, Canada, and in England, documenting in sketchbooks the systemic horrors that she witnessed at those facilities. Seven pieces from the ongoing series Coe calls Porkopolis are featured in Sue Coe: Graphic Resistance, a current solo exhibition of her work at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, New York.

The prints, newspaper illustrations, large-scale collage works, and more that comprise Graphic Resistance are aimed at a number of ills, each demonstrative of the social reform element long at the center of Coe’s art. While it’s difficult to identify the most urgent subject at hand, I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, so the artist’s focus on meat processing plants around the world—her contribution to the long tradition of activist efforts concerning slaughterhouses as well as to visual journalism—strikes a personal chord with me.

Sue Coe graphic resistance PS1

Slaughterhouse, Tucson. Copyright © 1989 Sue Coe. (via Graphic Witness)

“No American needs to consume animal products to be healthy, quite the reverse,” Coe told Matthew Clay-Robison at Pennsylvania’s York College Galleries in 2016, when 4.6 billion animals were slaughtered for meat in the United States. “We are locked into this propaganda because of an economic system that benefits from our ignorance and puts profit before all life.”

Coe, “who has worked at the juncture of art and activism to expose injustices and abuses of power,” has been to approximately 40 slaughterhouses around the world, arranging reporting trips through contacts in the meat industry. At the PS1 show, the drawings and paintings that stem from this project are expectedly nightmarish, rife with dark and ghastly scenes of assembly line carnage. Animal innards are strewn about, and each depiction of the dungeon-like settings is spattered with black, blood-like pools of Rembrandt printer’s ink. Steel drums in her large-scale canvas Slaughterhouse, Tucson (1989) brim with severed pigs’ heads. Pencil roughs of New York City’s meatpacking district, Abu Dhabi, and slaughterhouses in Detroit accompany the finished Porkopolis pieces at the museum, and Coe includes quotes from floor workers in observational notes jotted beneath the paintings.

“The stupidest cow knows fear and death,” reads a quote attributed to a “Mallet Worker” in Dog Food (1988). We don’t see this worker, and if we did, we likely wouldn’t see his or her face.

Sue Coe graphic resistance PS1The facial expressions of the visible stockyard workers in Coe’s work are barely detectable. Broad shadows and baseball cap brims obscure the features of those on the kill floor, a direct response to our shameful legacy of neglecting these workers (nearly 500,000 in the U.S.), who are often immigrants or resettled refugees subject to intense physical and mental trauma owing to the nature of their job. They earn fifteen dollars or less an hour in American plants, and over the course of that hour, hundreds of animals are “processed,” while at least one “high speed” facility kills an estimated 1,300 pigs every 60 minutes.

The animals in Coe’s work, on the other hand—living or dead—are beautifully drawn. Their anatomies get clear framing lines, and each has a luminous glow or near-spectral quality. The sharp-edged instruments, the means to their ends, are rendered with precision in graphite and watercolors. Pointy metal hooks, dangling from chains secured to the cavernous ceilings, are emphasized and made plain.

“We meet her pigs and cows eye to eye, and they become sympathetic and tenderly anthropomorphized like the famous calf on the shoulders of the archaic Moschophoros (Calf-bearer),” writes The Brooklyn Rail‘s Ann McCoy of Coe’s subjects. “The artist reminds us that we too are animals and their mistreatment and death may lead to our own.”

How does the weight of Porkopolis and Graphic Resistance complement the immediacy of the raw numbers we have on this ghoulish tradition? Will these paintings, and other innumerable reported accounts of slaughterhouse horrors, make a tangible social impact? Coe’s confrontational work, at the very least, connects the messy stockyard floor to the dining room table. Maybe there are conversations to be had at supper.

Image: Slaughterhouse, Tucson © 1989 Sue Coe (via Graphic Witness). Image: Dead Meat © 1996 Sue Coe. Tickets for MoMA PS1’s Graphic Resistance are available through September 9th.