By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|photo by Robert Wedemeyer|
SISTER CORITA KENT WAS A LOS ANGELESRAISED ARTIST who rose to fame in the '60s as a literal and figurative poster girl for postVatican II progressive Catholicism, making the covers of Newsweek and The Saturday Evening Post, collaborating with kick-ass radicals like Dan Berrigan, and functioning as a figurehead for the schism between the right-wing authorities of the church and the grassroots socially conscious younger generation, particularly in and around the convents. Sister Corita's main gig was as a full-time art instructor at Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, where the Dominican nun developed an influential teaching philosophy, transformed the stuffy rituals of Catholic academe into giddy pop-art happenings, and produced hundreds of editions of brilliantly colored, widely distributed silk-screen prints -- reminiscent of painter Stuart Davis and designers Ray & Charles Eames -- based on popular advertising design. Extracting text fragments and stylistic formulas from print ads, signage, TV, and product packaging, Sister Corita arranged them into vivid collisions of color, sometimes pointedly, but often with an almost Dadaesque irrationality. Unmoored from their specific marketing ploys, phrases such as "Things Go Better," "For Emergency Use Soft Shoulder" and "Makes Meatballs Sing" took on an indeterminate, pop-philosophical absurdity.
Composed with consummate visual-design instincts, the posters were -- from a distance -- simple, cheerful subversions of mass-media vernacular. On closer inspection, though, many of the large blocks of Day-Glo colors are filled with scrawled quotations reflecting on such weighty issues as death, identity and social responsibility, using literary sources ranging from Pete Seeger and the Beatles to Rilke and Gertrude Stein. As the '60s progressed, the words in the prints began to openly criticize U.S. actions in Vietnam and exhorted active engagement in political issues ranging from poverty to racism to the conflicts raging within the Catholic Church. Bucking regular censure from Archbishop James McIntyre in the late '60s, the I.H. sisters split away from church supervision and became the Immaculate Heart Community. Soon after, an exhausted Sister Corita parted ways with the convent, the Catholic Church and Los Angeles, settling in Boston and on a less confrontational mode of artmaking until her death from cancer in 1986.
As odd a subject for a retrospective as Sister Corita ã might seem, odder still is the fact that not one but two independently curated exhibitions, both pairing off Corita's '60s silk-screen prints with the work of contemporary artists, have appeared in Los Angeles within a month of each other. The first, "The Big G Stands for Goodness: Corita Kent's 1960s Pop" was curated by Art in America's man in Los Angeles (and onetime Weekly contributor) Michael Duncan, and is installed through February 26 at Cal State L.A.'s gymnasiumlike Luckman Fine Arts Gallery. Duncan's version of Sister Corita's oeuvre is presented in a chronological line, with the bulk of the prints hung one after another as distinct entities, at eye level, with occasional clusters of Corita's source photographs and curatorial text panels to break the rhythm.
Also on view are two documentary videos, one from the '60s exploring Sister Corita's teaching philosophy, and the other a more straightforward biographical appreciation, both of which are worth the effort. The former focuses on how Corita's prints need to be seen as part of a larger, more complex and highly ambitious campaign to promote artistic creativity as a tool for personal and social liberation. The latter, hosted by Eva Marie Saint, is of particular interest for its examination of the years after Sister Corita's secular transformation.
Plagued by insomnia and a dark streak of melancholy that belied the cheerful optimism her art conveyed (visually anyway; anyone who repeatedly quotes Camus and Beckett can't be all that chipper), Corita sought to redefine herself outside the faith, pedagogic philosophy and high-profile political engagement that had marked her rise to fame. Apparently, she continued her artwork unabated, but neither museum show touches this 15-year period of work, and the examples shown in the second video -- the 1985 "LOVE" U.S. postage stamp (an edition of 700 million) and a similarly rainbow-themed wraparound mural on a giant industrial storage tank -- don't exactly leave you wanting more.
Duncan has included some of the later work -- pages from the Damn Everything but the Circus book of 1971, which displays the expected graphic mastery, but with the curiously retrograde (say, 1950s) look of appropriated Victorian clip art. Likewise, Duncan extends the time line backward to include a few examples from Corita's early period, when her major influence, shared on the East Coast by hustling ad illustrator Andy Warhol, was artist Ben Shahn.
The second half of "The Big G Stands for Goodness" consists of Duncan's personal selection of L.A. artists from the last 30 years whose visions overlap in one or another way with Sister Corita's. Some choices are obvious: Karen Carson's Vegas- signage-inspired 1994 silk-screens not only follow the same formal strategies by appropriating commercial graphics and text, but also skew their materialistic import into a simple but deep spiritual affirmation, in this case Buddhist. Former altar boy Mike Kelley's dove-of-joy felt banner ("The Escaped Bird") is directly descended from Corita-inspired parochial-school decorations, though his 3 Points Program/4 Eyes (with the text "PANTS SHITTER AND PROUD P.S. JERK-OFF TOO") or Trash Picker ("I AM USELESS TO THE CULTURE BUT GOD LOVES ME") from the same series would have better conveyed the Freudian flavor of his uneasy recovery of what was undoubtedly a formative visual-arts influence. Steve Hurd's tremendous (in every sense) Snuggled Snuggle, a multipanel blowup of the fabric-softener logo, translates Corita's disorienting physical manipulations of text -- she often twisted, chopped and flipped her source materials before burning them onto the photosensitive screens -- into a powerful environmental experience that plays on painting's convoluted relationship with three-dimensional space.