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Nuncomformist 

Sister Corita Kent's Pop subversions

Wednesday, Feb 16 2000
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.

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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.

Other works, such as Robert Heinecken's photo-collage prints and Joyce Lightbody's meticulously intricate collage, are connected to the nun's prints by the merest formal or conceptual threads, while Ben Sakoguchi's politically instructive orange-crate-label parody series only suffers in comparison to the sophistication and grace of Corita's subversion. Still, even on its own this half would be an unusually cohesive group show. The general excellence of this work, including a hilarious Cheese Mold, Standard Station by Ed Ruscha; one of Michael Gonzalez's lovely layered Wonder Bread bubble permutation displays; and pieces by Allen Ruppersberg, Lari Pittman, Roy Dowell, Alexis Smith and Raymond Pettibon -- combined with the solid survey of Sister Corita's '60s Pop works -- makes a convincing case for Duncan's argument for Corita's place in, and influence on, contemporary Los Angeles art history.

ACROSS TOWN AT THE UCLA HAMMER Museum, "Power Up: Sister Corita and Donald Moffett, Interlocking" forges an awkward alliance between the nun and the '80s text-'n'-photo activist, whose Krugerific paste-ups ran in The Village Voice at the turn of the last decade. Initially interested in curating a show around Moffett, artist-curator Julie Ault came across Sister Corita's work, and sensed a tension-fraught similarity in both artists' use of recycled advertising culture to social and political ends. Although she came onboard as an adjunct to his show, Sister Corita's vision all but overwhelms Moffett's. Inspired by Corita's festive happenings and environmental sets, Ault has painted the walls with massive supergraphic word fragments in bright colors, strewn the space with painted and stenciled wooden boxes as seating, packed the walls with prints in dizzying salon style, and provided an array of books and displays including some of the same video material as in the Luckman exhibit. Almost lost in this dazzling installation are Moffett's quite excellent circular light-box pieces and his less endearing combinations of cropped photos and vague political typeset soundbites. The cramped shorthand and earnest pedantry of Moffett's broadsides are unflatteringly emphasized in their juxtaposition with Sister Corita's more generous, doubtful, and visually and intellectually nourishing vocabulary. Moffett would have fared better in a context like Duncan's group show, as one of a number of paths parallel to Corita's own. It's a hard act to follow.

Both shows are exciting, though the sensory overload of the Hammer installation detracts from the appreciation of the individual serigraphs. Sister Corita's work is splendid, and suffused with a sense of integration, of a competent graphic artist pushed to unlikely heights by the tides of history and finding unsuspected reserves of genius and compassion with which to respond. Both exhibitions beg the question, How much of Corita's gift came from the social conditions through which it emerged? The lack of critical interest in her later work suggests: almost all of it. If Corita hadn't admittedly felt obliged to enter a convent in order to pursue art, if her star hadn't risen at a time of widespread social upheaval, if her teaching profession and responsibilities as a Christian role model hadn't predisposed her to take a stand and spread the word as widely as she could, she might have spent the '60s painting the LOVE stamp. Thank the Lord for his tender mercies.

THE BIG G STANDS FOR GOODNESS: CORITA KENT'S 1960S POP At Cal State L.A. Luckman Fine Arts Gallery | Through February 26

POWER UP: SISTER CORITA AND DONALD MOFFETT, INTERLOCKING At UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd. | Through April 2

  • Sister Corita Kent's Pop subversions

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