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Uncertain Intimacy: Sue Coe's AIDS Portfolio at Pomona Art Museum

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Sue Coe, "Thomas," 1994, 13 x 9 1?2 in. Etching on Paper. Pomona College Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Walter and Elise Mosher.

"The object of power is power," wrote George Orwell in 1984. If that is so, and I see no reason to doubt it, then artist Sue Coe has been making pictures of power in pursuit of its goal for over forty years. Whether she is addressing Apartheid, Hurricane Katrina, vivisection, or any one other from a global catalog of injustice, Coe, who describes herself as a "graphic journalist," strives to make the operations of power abundantly clear.

Like fingers pointing at the perpetrators, Coe's stark graphics bristle with images of rape, torture, murder, and war mongering -- to name but a few of the tactics on show. Visually angry, they make the capitalist power-profit-pain tripod so glaringly visible, and so visceral, that one can almost smell the blood. And the oil, which drips from the nipples of Condoleeza Rice. And the mountain of mangled body-parts, animal and human, which support a meat industry moneybags and his bow-tied greed. And so on.)

"When I started," said Coe in a 2001 interview, "I thought, 'Oh, it won't change a thing.' But then I realized I could empower people." And so she has. Her 1983 publication "How to Commit Suicide in South Africa for example," which combined Coe's "aesthetic assault against the crushing power structure" with Holly Metz's "succinct history," became a campus anti-apartheid organizing tool. While Dead Meat (1986) is, for at least one Amazon commenter, "the book that converted me to Veganism."

"The graphic equivalent of early Clash recordings," Coe's work is not subtle. The need to rip through dominant narratives and describe the reality she comprehends lends urgency to content and form. Something has to change, and there's no time to worry about the shading.

In this context Coe's AIDS Portfolio from 1994 -- which is currently on display in Allied Against Aids at the Pomona College Museum of Art (PCMA) -- is something of an anomaly. Portraying AIDS patients and their hospital environment, the Portfolio's 11 prints occupy a less clamorous visual and emotional register than is common for Coe. Rather than use lacerating personifications to explain a reality that the artist has already digested and contextualized, their softer light and more tentative line seem to be feeling a way toward intimacy.

Sue Coe, &quot;Anthony,&quot; 1994, 13 x 9 1⁄2 in.Line etching on paper. Pomona College Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Walter and <br /> Elise Mosher.
Sue Coe, "Anthony"; 1994, 13 x 9  in.Line etching on paper. Pomona College Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Walter and Elise Mosher.

"I was invited to go to the University of Texas Hospital at Galveston by Dr. Eric Avery, who's also an artist, and Dr. David Parr, who was part of the AIDS team there," explains Coe in a recent video interview. "I spent a week going through the wards." Leafing through a box of sketches, Coe reads from a portrait sketch for Thomas:

"26-years old, white, gay, generalized weakness. My family didn't want me there for Christmas, they'd bring out plastic plates and cups."

And, reading from a portrait that didn't make it into the Portfolio:

"Sue, cleaner, cleans up bodily fluids, vomit, blood, urine, diarrhea...volunteered to work here." "That's something else I remember," says Coe, "people wouldn't work on that unit because they were frightened...everyone I drew in the sketchbook died."

Although the earliest known case of HIV infection has been dated to 1959, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) did not come to medical notice until 1981, when clusters of gay men in California and New York developed otherwise rare skin and lung conditions. The number of sick people quickly multiplied however, with five or six new cases reported weekly by the end of 1981, and up to two new U.S. diagnoses daily by September 1982.

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When misconceptions about disease transmission caused people to fear any proximity to people with AIDS (PWA), the burgeoning religious right and partisan policy-makers seized the opportunity to fan the flames of discrimination and misinformation.

"If it kills a few of them off, it will make society a better place," was, according to early AIDS identifier Dr. Joel Weisman, "a theme very early on." The press was awash with "Gay Plague" headlines. "Moral Majority" founder Jerry Falwell enthusiastically claimed AIDS as "God's punishment for homosexuals." Senator Jesse Helms, among others, repeatedly blocked funding for research, treatment, and outreach on the grounds that AIDS was the result of "deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct." By the mid-1980s, funeral homes were refusing to process the bodies of people with AIDS. In 1986 "30 percent to 53 percent of [poll] respondents" thought they risked contracting AIDS through casual contact with a PWA, and "54%...said AIDS patients should be quarantined." And by 1987, with 41,027 Americans already dead, President Reagan had still not uttered the word "AIDS" in public.

Rather than being understood as a disease that was affecting certain high-risk communities, which required a comprehensive, publicly funded response, AIDS was rapidly positioned as a universal threat, an individual responsibility, and a moral battleground.

"In practical terms," writes historian Michael Bronski, this "led to enormous setbacks for HIV/AIDS science and research, discrimination"¨ against people with AIDS, and the lack of any comprehensive outreach for prevention or education work, all adding to the already staggering"¨ amount of mounting deaths." Ideologically, it consolidated the return of Christian fundamentalism to the U.S. political arena.

Sue Coe was invited to Galveston in 1994, the Pomona catalog explains, "as part of an initiative to make the AIDS pandemic more visible." When she arrived at the hospital, 36% of the population saw AIDS as divine retribution for immorality, and AIDS was about to become the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25-44.

At the Pomona College Museum, Coe's prints have been hung together on a corridor-like wall. The cover of the Portfolio - a small red biohazard symbol printed on brown paper - hangs alone at one end of the corridor. It is, explains the exhibition's curator Benjamin Kersten, a "shock of color" that operates as an intentional looming presence.

In Coe's images, which were all made with permission from the sitters, a doctor touches the Kaposi's Sarcoma lesions on a patient's sunlit back. A cluster of heads and hands depict The Cough that was, as Kersten's exhibition essay states, "mistakenly rumored to transmit AIDS." Outpatients support one another in a similarly backlit waiting room. A young man crouches in The Blue Bath, one arm stretched high to hold his body in place. Lying on his side, eyes closed, the face of Anthony, is wide open to my gaze.

Nothing in my life has been as intimate as the experience of sitting with my dying father, holding the thin skin of his fingers, talking when he was able, and watching his sleeping face. In Coe's prints, I recognize a position his hands would often fall into, knuckles together, muscles too tired for animation.

The Portfolio shows images of touch and care. I read words spoken by dying people about the suffering that stigma and fear have subjected them to in their personal relations. And, although I recognize the techniques Coe has used ¬to provoke my response - the sanctifying light, the martyr's pose, the small-scale hand drawn graphics that are the visual equivalent of a quietly spoken testimony - I am entirely moved.

The question is, moved to what? Sadness and admiration, yes. Compassion for sure. But after wallowing in my remembered emotion for a while, what comes next?

Coe's most powerful works present their human and animal subjects as victims of oppression, and suggest directions for personal and political action that will alleviate the suffering on display. They do this by prompting us, her viewers, to question our responsibility in regard to the depicted circumstance, and by locating the experience of the individuals concerned in context of the wider operations of power.

(When the blood of a calf flows into a moneybag on the cover of Coe's most recent book Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation for example, our meat-eating culpability is firmly situated in the contexts of capitalist economics and human exceptionalism, and actions for both individual and collective action are thereby identified.)

In the AIDS Portfolio however, Coe fails to make that link between personal experience and its political context. Rather than personifications or political cartoons, she has drawn individual people who, the images suggest, suffer as much from public fear of their disease - fear that positions them as "toxic waste" - as they do from its physical ravages.

The resulting prints are intensely moving, but with no reference to the exploitation of AIDS, which saw the intentional fanning of public fear in pursuit of an ultra-conservative agenda, there is no signpost to action that could mitigate the pernicious impact of that agenda.

Thirteen years after AIDS first came to medical, public, and political attention, the AIDS Portfolio intimates that there is nothing for its viewers to do but feel.

Sue Coe, &quot;Kaposi's Sarcoma,&quot; 1994, 13 x 9 1⁄2 in. Photo-etching on paper. Pomona College Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Walter and Elise Mosher.

In his influential 1987 essay "AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism," art critic Douglas Crimp wrote: "It is...assumed that cultural producers can respond to the epidemic in only two ways: by raising money for scientific research and service organizations or by creating works that express the human suffering and loss." He then identified and advocated for a third possibility: "actively participating in the struggle against AIDS and its cultural consequences," by which he primarily meant the kinds of confrontational direct action engaged by the movement he joined, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power).

By insisting that expressions of human suffering are indeed forms of active participation, Coe's AIDS Portfolio refutes the exclusivity of Crimp's three categories. As do works by Francisco Goya, Käthe Kollwitz, and Otto Dix, to name just three. Humanists all, their representational activist tradition stands on a set of assumptions about human commonality, reason, and goodness, which support the idea that, if the public just understood what was going on - if we only comprehended the enormity of our fellows' suffering - then things would change.

In this tradition, a portrait of suffering is something more than simulacra. It is a "likeness," an expression of the combined humanness of artist and subject, in which a viewer is expected to recognize the "essence" of another and the "essence" of her self. Thus, goes the theory, empathy - a wordless "being moved" towards the represented other - is born.

The tradition is problematic. Not least because the unqualified assumption of commonality is a hairsbreadth away from the requirement of sameness, and from there it is a depressingly small step to the tyrannies of the Moral Majority. And somewhere in that continuum sits the notion that Coe's prints "humanize" their (inhuman? dehumanized?) subject for the benefit of a viewing human.

Is Coe's work a pragmatic assault on prevailing prejudice and stigma? Or, by reaffirming assumptions of commonality and the idea that gay men with AIDS are the "other," does it unwittingly harm the cause? If so, does that negate its emotional power? (Can it be negated?) Have these prints fallen off the edge of what is politically possible for visual representation? Is the only route to change the one Joe Hill outlined in 1915: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize"?

Sue Coe, &quot;Blue Bath,&quot; 1994, 13 x 9 1⁄2 in. Photo-etching with hand coloring on paper. Pomona College Collection. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Estate of Walter and Elise Mosher.

Allied Against AIDS contains deep contradictions. It also, largely thanks to such curatorial decisions as the inclusion of a detailed timeline of the history of AIDS, and the organization of related events, begins to address them.

In her 2009 book "Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight against AIDS," sociologist and ACT UP member Deborah Gould analyses the ways in which not only direct action but also feeling and emotion are "profoundly consequential" to "all things political." Being moved, she writes, is the precursor to movement, action, and "uprising;" while "affect" - the kind of wordless gut-response intensity that Coe is so very expert at provoking - is "bursting with potential." The challenge lies in moving beyond the action-less empathy of "an affect-flooded stupor." Political movements like ACT UP, Gould explains, provided the discursive and pedagogic context necessary for people to translate their affect experience into action.

Benjamin Kersten tells me that he had "a few qualms as far as the face of AIDS Sue Coe is presenting...but in 1994 [AIDS Portfolio] was a very open expression of dissent to the way AIDS was being addressed." Responding perhaps to those qualms, he has set the exhibition in a small network of institutional events, including an AIDS awareness 'zine-making workshop, an evening with Sue Coe, and a curator's talk. More interestingly given Gould's understanding that feeling translates into and is transformed by collective political action, the exhibition is also a focal point for on-campus activism related to the FDA's continuing ban on blood donation by any man who has had sex "even once" with another man since 1977.

Kersten, an undergraduate art history student, describes the ban as "a remnant of the crisis I have experienced." He wants his generation to know the history of the US response to AIDS, and he organizes with them to address its continuing impact. But he also wants to share the affect of Coe's work: "The pain. There is an almost psychological trauma."

The curator hopes the exhibition's public conversations will tease out the tensions between direct action and depiction; but in the meantime he is using the power of both: "Fighting stigma is so important," he says. "From an ideological standpoint, if we can reduce the stigma around sex and queer identity, more money will then be allocated to research and healthcare...It's more visible internationally, but there is still a crisis."

 

ALLIED AGAINST AIDS: Sue Coe's AIDS Portfolio is at Pomona College Art Museum until December 19, 2014. The artist's talk and book signing is on Thursday, October 23, 5:00 - 11:00 pm. The curator's talk is at the same time on Thursday, November 06.

 

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