The Pit: The Tragical Tale of the Rise and Fall
of a Vivisector
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
shes not: somber, serious or withdrawn.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
gallerys 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
whose low art gave an unflinching moral commentary on the
hypocrisy and cruelty of 18th century London. Coe explains that Hogarths
art made connections between animals, women, crime and poverty, often
running full-circle. An artist, activists might think, well ahead of
The protagonist in Hogarths Four Stages is Tom Nero,
who is depicted, first, as a young boy torturing a dog by shoving an
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
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.
Sue Coes series covers
Hogarths 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 namea rescued pit bull that
came into my life.
Manhood and Separation
Unlike Hogarths 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 Pats childhood. In Their First Little
Murder Watson learns that its OK to torture animals. A ring
of boys crouch around a lighted candle as girls look onimpressed
with the business at hand. Moths are attracted to the flame and Pat learns
cruelty, Coe says, by tearing the wings off of moths.
Its a Wonderful Life depicts a family Christmas scene full
of commotion, abuse and terror. The father brutishly swings his arm at
Toms 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 Its a Wonderful Life is on television
in the background, but as Coe relates, its not a wonderful
life at all.
Pats 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 theyre 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 Pats
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.
its 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 Downs Syndrome.
She wont tell so its 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 onhelpless and terrifiedfrom 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 thats 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 cant hear their message. Animals tortured by the science
Watson practices haunt his dreama bunny with oozing eyes, monkeys
with eyes sewn shut and things protruding from their brains, a cat with
her brain exposed. But Pat doesnt 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 floorbroken and left to
die. He holds her face in his hands.
we find Watson conducting deadly virus tests on monkeys. Wouldnt
you know ithe gets bitten and contracts the virus. Reminiscent of
Hogarths 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? Its 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 [Pats]
For those of you who cant make it to the exhibit at Gallerie St.
Etienne (24 W. 57 St, Suite 801) by June 5th, dont 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: http://graphicwitness.org/coe/coebio.htm.
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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