Kentridge favors contemplative, mild-mannered ambiguity. Sue Coe's "The Tragedies of War," at the Art Institute of Boston, is rabidly angry about the evils of the world — in this case, American wars. Coe follows in the tradition of Goya, Otto Dix, George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Martha Rosler. Stand back from these drawings to keep from getting singed.
Coe, who lives in upstate New York, began her career as an illustrator, and she remains best known for visual screeds like How To Commit Suicide in South Africa, X (both published by the folks behind the landmark '80s comix anthology Raw), and her 1996 Dead Meat, which depicts the evils of the meat industry.
UNTITLED (“ARTIST SITTING,” DETAIL FROM HMV SET): This 1998 print suggests the dreamlike and melancholy quality of Kentridge’s animation.
The Art Institute surveys 39 of Coe's etchings and mixed-media works from the early '80s, the 1991 Iraq war, and 2000. In her 1983 mixed-media drawing Dog of War, a devil-red shark-like dog lopes through a shattered city chewing up people as bombers scream overhead. In her 1992 drawing The Road to the White House, President George H. Bush's head becomes part of a tank rolling over anti-war protesters. The timeliness that originally electrified some of the work has passed, and the symbolism can turn simplistic. But the work isn't about subtlety — it's about shouting a point when the issue is hot.
Coe's The Tragedies of War series of etchings seems more a scream against the unending cycle of violent conflict than about any specific crisis. Disemboweled horses lie in a minefield, persons pack a prison, bugs crawl over a severed hand in a bomb-cratered plain, diseased capitalists drink blood-red wine as crowds throw themselves into a volcano, soldiers rape a girl in a dark room. The imagery can be both urgent and timeless, but you might also feel that when you've seen one field of chopped-off hands, you've seen them all.
The most riveting print, War Street, depicts a vast crowd carrying a platform on which the skeleton of Death holds a sickle and rides a dead horse. Pulled behind are the bull and bear of Wall Street. Coe's symbols are grimmer, bloodier versions of newspaper editorial cartoons. Her gritty etched lines make the image seem like a telegram from the time of Europe's Black Death.
The first job brothers Charles and Herbert Hatch printed after they opened their shop in 1872 was a handbill advertising a talk on the "Reign of the Common People" by the abolitionist Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. The big block letters of a facsimile exhibited in "American Letterpress: The Art of Hatch Show Print" at the Boston University Art Gallery can get you anticipating serious 19th-century speechifying. But these days, the still-active Nashville firm is identified by its super-catchy rock and country-music posters.
Letterpress traditionally mixes movable type with woodcut images in just a few colors for a bold, graphic simplicity. The style is most familiar from summer-carnival posters, but in the hands of masters — and the Hatch Show Print gang are masters — that's just the beginning.