Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (Part 5d: Sue Coe & Olly and Suzi)

Fig. 27 Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat, Sue Coe, 1990

Fig. 27
Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat, Sue Coe, 1990

In contrast to paintings which utilise simulation and the hyper-real, Sue Coe, a well-known illustrative painter of animal-related subjects, uses the immediacy of drawing from direct observation combined with informed imagination to highlight the contradictions and cruelty present in human-animal relations.  Here the subject is a commentary on animal rights, but it is the medium of paint that shows Coe’s sensitivity and subjectivity towards the non-human.  Without anthropomorphising animals, Coe simplifies and stylises her subjects to intensify the dialogue between them and the spectator.[1] One such example is her painting Modern Man Followed by the Ghosts of his Meat (1990): A monochromatic scene of a terrified man looking behind him to see a host of spectral animals staring dolefully at him and his McDonald’s meal purchase (Fig. 27).  The work is simultaneously ridiculous and sinister, with Coe using the uneasy balance to disconcert (and even make culpable) the viewer with the uncomfortable facts regarding the treatment of animals in the food industry.[2] Rather than resorting to photography of slaughterhouses and battery farms Coe uses paint in order to ‘give the animal a face’ amidst theatricality and poignancy in the character of her work.[3] Coe simply asks the audience to read the paintings as literally as their content.  In his book, What is Posthumanism? Wolfe states that her work succeeds in a posthumanist sense by referring to the effect capitalism and factory-farming have on representing the animals, rather than solely using the disfiguring nature of paint and its capacity to distort.[4] By this he means that her choice of subject reveals the gross mistreatment of animals as commodity and that Coe achieves this ‘through figural excess’ and the ‘interposing materiality of representation itself’.  He goes on to say that her ‘artwork is a faithful (or perhaps ‘dramatic’) enough representation to didactically incite ethical action and change on the part of the viewer’.[5]

Fig.28 Untitled (film still), Olly and Suzi, (date unknown)

Untitled (film still), Olly and Suzi, (date unknown)

For artists Olly and Suzi, this material representation manifests as a process in which humans and non-humans engage through the medium of paint.  Their work is described as a process in which they work together ‘hand over hand…a collaborative, mutual response to nature at its most primitive and wild’.[6] By producing the work in close proximity to the animals, often painting in dangerous circumstances alongside predators such as great white sharks or polar bears, the work is charged with a frenetic urgency of mark-making and displays a ‘physical performance of the senses’.[7](Fig. 28 and Fig. 29)  In leaving the studio and venturing into remote and inhospitable terrain, the painters seek to engage non-human species in their natural habitat and exchange marks ‘to discern and promulgate the cultivation and enculturation of animals within human culture’.[8] This decidedly posthumanist approach attempts to decentre the human by allowing the animal ‘other’ to participate in the creation of the work and leave traces of the encounter.  The medium of paint is merely a material with which the animal can leave such traces and its employment here is far from stylised or borne of photographic reference.  One could argue whether the animals with which Olly and Suzi interact are actually involved in any real sense; the artists have, after all, invaded the creatures’ habitats and imposed themselves with the intention of educing some sort of physical engagement.  However, as Steve Baker asserts in The Postmodern Animal, despite the constructed scenario ‘the depicted animals are encouraged, without manipulation or coercion, to “interact” with the work’, and that ‘it is the painting as object, as thing, marked by the animal itself, which can indelibly record the immediacy and “truth” of the encounter’.[9]   Ron Broglio adds that what Olly and Suzi accomplish is ‘a rethinking of what marks of significance mean within the economy of art, language and culture’ in relation to human and animal interactions and establish ‘a visual argument for the value of an animal’.[10] In the posthumanist era of painting, this cogent value lies in engagements between human and non-human species and reveals how such encounters at a surface level can be productive.

Fig. 29 Olly & Suzi with Greg Williams, Olly and Suzi, 2003

Fig. 29
Olly & Suzi with Greg Williams, Olly and Suzi, 2003

The term surface can be defined in two ways for the purpose of this discourse: the first as a surface of paint intended as an artwork; the second as defined by Broglio, who uses the term surface to relate to the animal world with regard to their apparent lack of interiority compared with the depth and recursive-thinking of human phenomenology, saying ‘such depth (animals have) if radically different from our own remains closed off’and ‘this impossibility of understanding animal as Other serves as productive friction by which authentically new thinking and art is produced’.[11]  His texts investigate the ways in which artists such as Olly and Suzi manoeuvre these ‘contact zones’ of paint, paper and canvas, the optical and the material, to form dialogues between species and ‘challenge classical representations of animals’.[12]

[1] Aloi, Animals, p.136.

[2] Aloi, Animals, p.136.

[3] Wolfe, p.152.

[4] Wolfe, p.151.

[5] Wolfe, pp.151-152

[6] Olly and Suzi, ‘Artist’s statement’ Olly Suzi (2012) <http://www.ollysuzi.com&gt; [Accessed  22nd February 2013] (para. 1 of 4)

[7] Olly and Suzi, (para. 3 of 4)

[8] Broglio, p.82.

[9] Baker, Postmodern, pp.12-13.

[10] Broglio, pp.82-83.

[11] Broglio, p.xx.

[12] Arizona State University, About Ron Broglio (2013) <http://www.public.asu.edu/~rbroglio/about.htm&gt; [Accessed 23rd February 2013] (para. 3 of 4)


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