The distinctive, crisp-edged paintings of Caroline Coon were a glaring omission from the Sex Work section at Frieze London two years ago, which was dedicated to women artists whose explicit work placed them at the extreme edges of feminist practice. In Coon's figurative works the tables are repeatedly turned on male power present throughout centuries of art history and beyond, with both male and female genitalia defiantly celebrated. In one case, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus (around 1480s) is triumphantly reborn as a hermaphrodite. In another, Manet’s Olympia (1863) is reimagined as a gleamingly oiled black man, admired by a white maid as he cradles his semi-erection. In her coruscating series The Brothel, the customers of sex workers repeatedly get their comeuppance, appearing at turns vulnerable and ridiculous, culminating in the vengeful biblical-style painting Prostitutes, Stone the Hypocrites! (2002).
Unfortunately Coon is no stranger to having her work overlooked. Only now in her seventies is the importance of her paintings being acknowledged, alongside her activism and contribution to 1960s and 1970s counterculture. Her longstanding list of achievements includes founding the legal defence agency Release, testifying in the 1960s Oz Magazine obscenity trials, acting in Ken Russell’s 1967 film Dante’s Inferno and working as a pioneering journalist for the British music publication Melody Maker. She's designed seminal record covers, once managed the band The Clash and the Australian writer and intellectual Germaine Greer even gave Coon a dedication in her famous 1970 feminist book The Female Eunuch. However, painting was always her great passion and in reaction to what she regarded as an atmosphere of “often violent misogynist backlash against women” present in the late 1970s, Coon retreated back into the studio.
It was only when her old friend and fellow artist Duggie Fields introduced her to the dealers Martin Green and James Lawler that Coon received her first solo exhibition in their Liverpool DuoVision gallery last year, aged 73. This brought her to the attention of Peter Doig, who remembered that Coon had once written him a letter of encouragement in 1991, back when he was a deeply unfashionable figurative painter. Now Doig is returning the compliment, giving Coon her first London show at Tramps, the gallery housed in his former studio which he runs with his partner Parinaz Mogadassi. The chair of the Arts Council Nicholas Serota was among the admiring crowds at the opening of the show and other visitors have included the veteran British pop artist Derek Boshier, who was also Coon’s former tutor at London's Central School of Art. It seems that at last the self-styled "great offender" is getting the favourable attention she richly deserves—and now on her own terms.
• Caroline Coon: The Great Offender, Tramps, 29 September- 22 December 2019