If you are not currently living in a state of constant outrage, then you are not fully human.
You may be a physically beautiful person, but if you are not frothing-at-the-mouth pissed-off, then you are closer to a petunia. You may be nothing more than a very kind person, in which case you are more puppy than human. You may simply be happy. If so, you possess the temperament of a head of cabbage.
Artist Wayne Coe is neither flower, nor pet, nor vegetable. He's a Los Angeles-based artist whose art screams, piercing through the fog of war and its primary enabler, human stupidity. His series, American Hero and Pop Terror, redefine the events of September 11, 2001 and the resultant carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq as they force the viewer to look past the media spin and confront not only the horror, the horror, but the way it's sold back to us. Coe's art beseeches its audience to THINK AGAIN and not settle for the obvious or propaganda or purely emotional response.
Coe is a 45-year old resident of Glendale and husband and father of three children. He has over twenty years of experience in the movie racket as a storyboarder, poster designer, and creator of special effects sequences. In 1990, he wrote and directed a feature horror - there's that word again, so ubiquitous these days - film called Grim Prairie Tales, starring James Earl Jones and Brad Dourif. His labors in Hollywood have obviously given him insight into the knee-jerk psychological reflexes of movie audiences or, more plainly, how people can be told what to think. His fine art explores the confusion between truth and entertainment and how citizens become swindled by politicians and corporations selling ideology and products.
"Forget about the event, because no more than 50,000 people were touched by the event," Coe recently told me, with regard to 9/11. "99.9% of the world saw the TV show. It's the most successful TV show ever and had lots of spin-offs. But no one else is touched physically by the event."
Except for 100,000 dead Iraqis, I offer, to which Coe agreed.
American Hero is presented as scenes for a fictionalized film about 9/11 accompanied by screenplay portions, much of it based on oral histories. Some of the pieces are meticulously detailed paintings, such as Cockpit View, which presents the perspective of one of the hijackers (accused of being "cowards" by The Decider-In-Chief) heading into the second World Trade Center tower while smoke pours from the first - a perspective very few Americans have ever considered. The effect is heightened by the artist's purposeful optical illusion. The oncoming but faint towers are dwarfed by the size of the control panel. On first viewing, they're easy to miss (I did). When one "sees" the entire picture, it's shocking.
One viewer who saw the piece hung out of context in a group show, saw the words "American" and "hero," and blogged that "Wayne Coe is one sick motherfucker," thinking that Coe was inferring that the hijackers were heroes. Coe contacted and assuaged the misunderstanding blogger, but in further conversation with me, he notes the inherent contradictions. "I think that if the hijackers had been John Wayne and this had been evil Japan and this had been a suicide run, then this would have all the makings of a 1950s patriotic film. One against many. For God and country. The last full measure of devotion," Coe riffs in jingoistic soundbites. "So I was just taking a look at that perspective and wondering if perhaps some of those irrational, war-like impulses were recontextualized, it might make us re-examine the way we look at patriotic war."
Flamers - The Mall, another striking Coe oil, inspired by an actual account, depicts flaming humans walking by a Gap store advertising "QUICK DRAW - drawstring cargos" in its window. The juxtaposition of the horrific with the mundane world of corporate brands suggests that the latter may not be so mundane. "That painting encapsulates my feeling when I saw 9/11 goin' down. The complete valuelessness of the consumer to the people selling them goods."
The two-shot lenticular Fuselage bounces between an antiseptic office and the bloody mayhem caused by the nose cone of a jet plowing through its windows. The use of the lenticular - a novelty we may remember best from Cracker Jack prizes -- has the effect of never resolving the narrative, because depending on where the viewer is standing, it's calm to chaos and back again. The artist has a unique take on this piece. "To me it's really about childbirth because I've seen all my children born and it's the violent, blood splattering, screaming thing. In the end, no one's hurt." Here - and in another image of the exploding interior of a jet -- Coe proves himself beyond politics. Who hasn't wondered what it was like to live through and/or die that day or through any manner of catastrophe?
Other pieces are presented as movie storyboards, one sextet "starring" Denzel Washington and Britney Spears as office workers forced to jump from a flaming tower. "That one was in a form invisible to the public," explains Coe. "It's in entertainment industry language. Until we film it and turn it into media, we don't believe it." The artist breaks the fourth wall in Jumper Stunt Shoot: a stuntman falls from a burning tower while a film crew on a raised platform gets the shot. OK, CUT! ONE HOUR FOR LUNCH!
It's surprising how few, thus far, have objected to Coe's point of view. While the mediation of reality is at issue here, two New York stockbrokers who saw the work, for instance, were impressed with the realism. My bet is that when American Hero plays Peoria, the response will be different. 9/11 has become a sacred holiday. We're not supposed to toy with it, deconstruct it, impugn its myth. Yet while Coe is an irreverent critic, he's not crass. It's permissible for a CNN anchor to inform her audience that The War On Terror is brought to you by General Motors. She's not only blatantly exploiting the tragedy, but The War On Terror WAS not-so-circuitously brought to us by the demand for fossil fuels; the addictive, acquisitive, consumptive needs of America's capitalist empire; the desperate necessity to SELL AND BUY. To call attention to this isn't callous - it's merely honest reportage. "If I hadn't put movie stars in them, they're kind of like historical paintings," says Coe.
Coe's recent Los Angeles show Pop Terror, which was at Bert Green Fine Art, encompasses the American Hero series and goes beyond to include 9/11's "spin-offs." One of the strongest, Guantanamo Guard Dog, is yet another of his sleight-of-draw, depth of field tricks: a healthy German Shepherd stands proudly in the foreground of a deep green pasture; a leash around its neck held by an out-of-view master. Only upon closer scrutiny do we notice the blindfolded, gagged, kneeling, orange jump-suited prisoners in the background. The canine resembles one of those TV hounds that pulls Little Jimmy from drowning in a flood, drags him to safety, calls an ambulance, builds a dam to stanch the flood, then cooks dinner and reads the kid a bedtime story. This beast's gig in the real world is to munch on the testicles of swarthy, questionably imprisoned men.
I keep thinking of the late, great satirist Terry Southern and Dr. Strangelove, his and Stanley Kubrick's nightmare comedy about nuclear holocaust. Coe, like Southern and Kubrick, juxtaposes the very real and the barely believable. He doesn't mince paint -- he is terrified. This is the point of terror, after all, "theirs" as well as "ours". Coe's genius is that he recognizes the absurdity of absolutist thinking and, hence, the humor in it too. If they laugh in Peoria, they will hopefully be outraged at the artist's targets at the same time.
This post, in a different form, ran in the September 2006 issue of Artillery Magazine.