Web Extra: Vicious Cycles 

Sue Coe brings unsettling imagery to Smokebrush

To call Sue Coe's etchings "nightmarish" is easy her imagery is most definitely unpleasant.

Warped landscapes, contorted figures and monsters, and painful expressions illustrate Coe's strong political and social opinions, and are on display in the Sue Coe: Cycles show at Smokebrush Gallery through Oct. 17.

Through sketchy and sooty black-and-white etchings, Coe creates sometimes-fantastical images of the fallout of war, brutality against animals and children, and intolerance towards AIDS patients, to name a few. While her subjects have a running subconscious style, the messages they convey are contemporary and acute far from the ramblings of dreams.

Anxiety saturates each piece. One work, titled "Cheap De-Miners," is especially unnerving. Coe depicts lame horses set free within a minefield, detonating the buried bombs. Framed by barbed wire, the viewer peers into the scene and is confronted by a mare disemboweled and mutilated by a mine. Next to her stands a foal nuzzling her neck, confused at the state of its mother.

The gore is so alarming, and the staring eyes of the mare which lock with the viewer's are so strangely alive, that any amount of sentimentality is chilled. You feel helpless; in fact, as with many of Coe's works, you feel almost like an accessory to the crime.

These pieces share the legitimate immediacy of photography. Dramatic and exaggerated as her pieces may be, they are believable. No matter the political message, the works stand out as recordings from the front lines.

Smokebrush does well in framing the works between two glass plates and dimming the lights to preserve them. The viewer's focus is projected to the work; ye, from a design standpoint, the overall effect in the gallery is quite striking. The new maroon walls of the main gallery soften the enraged works and calm the space.

As with the Jermaine Rogers show earlier this year, Smokebrush succeeds in elevating its artistic taste and building a meditative environment. Unlike that Rogers show, however, it's difficult to see many viewers returning to this show for another go-round. Coe's works are simply too disturbing.

Harsh imagery like Coe's can inspire social and artistic change. As startling and unforgiving as her art is, it still has beauty. Fans of Coe know this and are prepared to view her work. To those unfamiliar: Beware of this show. A repulsive gut reaction is not wrong, but it is not a complete response.

When the viewer can connect the visceral with the intellectual, a dialogue can begin. And with the case of Cycles, there is much to talk about.

Sue Coe: Cycles
Smokebrush Gallery, 218 W. Colorado Ave, Suite 102
Runs through Oct. 17; noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Free; call 444-1012 or visit smokebrush.org for more information.

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