Anne Coe is a captivating conversationalist. Her passion for environmental issues is evident in her dialogue and in her artwork, and she can hold forth for hours on aspects of life in the desert you've never considered before. Too bad her paintings are so lousy.
Coe's current exhibition, on display at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, depicts "The Seven Deadly Sins," those glum judgments of spiritual lore, as a statement on endangered species and land ethics. Coe's allegorical paintings cast critters-rather than humans-as either the perpetrators or the victims of medieval evil.
Coe knows the desert. She grew up in the lower Colorado River valley, smack-dab between the California and Mexico borders. Coe claims an affinity with the wilderness, and feels that humankind is suffering the consequences of its destruction. When Anne Coe defends the desert, she is defending her home.
But Arizona is a locale she's not always been proud of. "I was pretty ashamed to be from here when I was a kid," Coe admits, so she hightailed it to Europe as soon as she could, where she studied art and German. When she returned to the Valley to get her M.F.A. in 1975, she rediscovered the wilderness and has been here ever since.
"I feel a real connection with the desert," Coe says, and I have a social responsibility to defending it." Coe says that her commitment to being an artist "is not unlike taking vows. It means finding my own discipline, getting up every morning and facing a canvas. The Scottish Presbyterian missionary part of me helps."
It also influences her artwork. "People who've seen this show think I'm Catholic," Coe says, although the only spiritual relationship she claims is with terra firma. If there is a God, it's in the land," Coe believes.
Although she insists that hers is not a religious show, Coe occasionally comes across-both in conversation and on canvas-as a bit of a fundamentalist. She portrays "Lust" as the dusty parking lot of a seedy roadhouse, packed with automobiles and populated by carnal canines. Near the roadhouse there's a shabby motel; behind the saloon there's been an auto accident. God's wrath at this salaciousness is represented by a lightning bolt shooting out of the sky.
"Who'd have thought that something like AIDS would result from our unrestrained sexual behavior?" Coe wonders. "The sexual revolution was a total failure, and now we're paying the consequences."
Coe is a big believer in consequences. Her painting "Envy" depicts rascally mutts in flashy red convertibles running one another off the road, while "Pride" portrays wild beasts fleeing the demolition of their desert home. "If we continue to abuse wildlife, the land and one another," Coe says, then all that has formed us in relation to the world will be gone."
But bad art, no doubt, will remain. Coe's acrylic-on-canvas renderings are stylistically barren, and her paints are too dark, causing bleak blends of fore- and midgrounds. Coe refers to herself as a "baroque absurdist," but baroque art is typified by bright paint and richly contrasted lights and darks. There's little of either in Coe's large paintings.
The Southwestern horizons in Coe's canvases are pleasant, but her wildlife is bizarrely misshapen. One of the dogs in "Sloth" was so poorly executed I mistook it for a futon.
Perhaps Coe should stick to painting landscapes: This dogs-as-people stuff is a little too precious. Looking at Coe's work, I was reminded of C.M. Coolidge's "Poker Sympathy," that infamous piece of folk art that portrays a pack of pups playing five-card stud. I do not want to remember Coolidge's work. Ever.
But I liked Coe's assemblages. They reminded me of similar work I've seen by Janet deBerg Lange, although Lange's assemblages tend to be more comically irreverent. Coe's altar pieces detail elements like fire, water and air in a whimsically spiritual setting. "Elemental Altar: Fire" encircles the Virgin Mary in jalapeno peppers, while "Elemental Altar: Air" combines plastic farm animals and tiny bananas with somber religious emblems.
Coe's Scottsdale exhibition includes the sketches and notes that lead up to her finished work. I've encountered this conceit at other art exhibits and fail to find a point in it: I don't necessarily want to know where a painting comes from or what inspired it. (If I keep my notes after I've completed a writing assignment, will someone ask to see them someday?)
"The thing about doing a show," Coe observes, "is that just about the time I get to understand the work, it's done and it's time to hang it in the gallery. I spent a year working on the paintings for this show. I wish I'd had two years."
Me too, Anne.