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Stephen Kroninger
Sue Coe: Elephants We Must Never Forget
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 ELEPHANTS WE MUST NEVER FORGET: New Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Sue Coe, on view from October 14 through December 20 at the Galerie St. Etienne, is the first exhibition ever to document the plight of circus elephants: gentle yet sometimes deadly beasts who have long been exploited for their entertainment value.
 
Comprising 14 new oil paintings and over a dozen ancillary drawings and prints, ELEPHANTS WE MUST NEVER FORGET: New Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Sue Coe chronicles the lives and deaths of both generic and historically specific circus elephants. Highlights include a sequence of 11 works telling the story of Topsy, an elephant who was electrocuted at Coney Island as a publicity stunt on behalf of Thomas Edison’s electric company. Jumbo—whose name became a synonym for “extra large”—experienced an equally violent death (reprised in two oil paintings, a large drawing and a lithograph) and was then “resurrected” as a stuffed display, seen in the painting The Dress Rehearsal (2008). One of the most moving paintings in the exhibition is Blind Children Feel an Elephant (2008), which shows how the simple sense of touch bridges the gulf between species.
 
ELEPHANTS WE MUST NEVER FORGET: New Paintings, Drawings and Prints by Sue Coe represents a turning point in the career of one of our foremost contemporary political artists. Sue Coe’s approach has undergone an immense shift since 2001, when she moved from Manhattan to Upstate New York. The tangible presence of nature and complex interactions with the local community have given Coe’s work a more solid basis in lived experience. A consummate draughtsman, she has for the first time felt compelled to paint, and the elephant series evidences a newly robust use of color. The paintings re-create the elephants’ world more completely than is possible with drawing, inspiring a more visceral emotional response from the viewer.
 
    “I think it is possible that in the near future elephants can be rescued from their forced role of doing silly tricks to entertain us, or of being part of stamp-album collections in zoos.  They can walk on soft grass, be with their own kind.  An elephant never forgets, we just forgot that they have complex feelings of friendship, family, loyalty.  They can be free of our oppression.”
    Sue Coe
 
 
 
Sue Coe, 57, has earned a broad following that ranges from grass-roots animal-rights organizations to major museums. Almost immediately after emigrating to the United States from her native England in 1972, Coe began working as an illustrator for such publications as The New York Times, Time and The New Yorker. In the late 1970s, she began to create extended series on subjects of her own choosing. Her first independent book, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa, was published in 1983 and subsequently widely used as an organizational tool on college campuses. Coe has frequently been profiled in the press and has been the subject of one-person exhibitions at many museums, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Her work is in numerous public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although she has exhibited widely, publication is her preferred means of communication, because Coe’s goal as an activist is to reach the largest possible audience. Her book Dead Meat, published in 1996, details animal lives on factory farms. She turned her attention to abandoned dogs with Pit’s Letter (1999/2000) and examined the sheep industry in Sheep of Fools (2005). The artist is presently engaged in developing her elephant series into a book-length narrative.
 
 Baby Elephant at Sea 2007
 The Death of Jumbo 2008
Two Elephants Standing on Stools 2008
 Blind Children Feel an Elephant 2008
 An Elephant Never Forgets  2007
 all images (c) copyright Sue Coe 2008


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