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Eye Exam: A Modern Nun

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By Bert Stabler

This year marks the centennial of F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, as many art fans probably know. Somewhat fewer art fans may be counting down to next year’s anniversary of Pope Pius X’s 1910 encyclical, the “Oath Against Modernity,” which, while diametrically opposed to Marinetti in attitude, shares much of his fierce vision of an absolute and triumphant Reason. And, caught between (and somewhat after) these two grand phallic statements of the cultural epoch, we find the colorful, thoughtful, and humane artwork of Corita Kent, also known as Sister Mary Corita.

Kent was born in 1918, and attended Catholic schools in Los Angeles, joining the Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1938. She learned silkscreen printing while in graduate school for art history at the University of Southern California, and won a local art contest in 1952 held by the Los Angeles County Museum with a print titled “The Lord is with Thee.” In her work of this period, she used bold colors and a Picasso-esque appropriation of simplified gestural renderings of sacred illuminations and calligraphy.



She was eventually censured by the Los Angeles Archbishop, in keeping with the aforementioned “Oath Against Modernity,” and was told to stop rendering the human form in a contemporary style. In the 1960s, inspired by the civil rights movement and the progressive statements made in the Second Vatican Council, an expression of liberation theology that ran directly counter to the reactionary approach exemplified by Pius X, Sister Corita began making prints that combined large cropped commercial text, reminiscent of Pop Art, with handwritten quotes from literature, Scripture and politics that expressed her opposition to war, racism and economic inequality. In 1968 she left her order. She ended up leaving the Church, as well as the West Coast. She moved to Boston, where she made much more subdued work, and came to identify herself as a Jungian and a Buddhist. In 1985 one of her prints kicked off a long series of U.S. postage stamps, simply titled “Love”; she died of cancer the next year.

The traveling show now at Loyola, “Sister Corita: The Joyous Revolutionary,” chronicles her career with dozens of her vivid prints and abundant explanatory wall text, in what is to be apparently the last show at the Crown Center Gallery. A welcoming and absorbing show in a lovely space, tucked away by a quiet stretch of lakefront, the exhibit is a fine tribute to a venerable artist as well as to another worthwhile university art space biting the dust. Rogers Park may be better known to gallery goers as the home of another gallery with a mission, namely the DIY/anarchist/relational space Mess Hall, but Crown Center has spent years hosting many politically themed shows, reflecting a longstanding link between Catholic mission and social activism, as well as between morality and visual expression. This made it all the more sad that in the hour or so I spent at the gallery, I saw a total of maybe six people.



Unfortunately, Sister Corita’s art is somewhat marginalized by its place in two already marginal ghettoes of visual art. On the one hand, there’s art that, like Kent’s, flirts with relevant contemporary style while avoiding more esoteric habits of the avant-garde, opting instead to be inclusively “middlebrow.” My suburban WASP parents favored the nature prints of Ray Harm, a luminary in the tradition of photorealistic knockoffs of John James Audobon. An older friend of mine at work is a big fan of prints by John Holyfield and Annie Lee, who create odd mash-ups in which Archibald Motley-style images of cavorting young African-Americans are transposed into the smoothed-out bucolic settings of Thomas Hart Benton. Other people favor the post-post-Impressionism of Thomas Kinkade. In any case, these works cannot evoke a better modern world, but merely project a blissful absence of modernity.

On the other hand, political art has its own peculiar baggage, as underscored by Jeriah Hildwine’s exasperating article last week on the Chicago Art Map site. Complaining that what de-legitimizes dumb political art is its misguided attempt to inspire activism (rather than merely being dumb art), he ignores a well-documented legacy of intelligent guerrilla performance, interactive work and street art, not to mention plenty of highly didactic conceptual work, and the poster tradition to which Kent belongs. For Hildwine, visual stimulation connotes complexity and ambiguity connotes depth—a high-middlebrow attitude shared by many an educated culture consumer and occasional art enthusiast. The eloquent graphic design of Sister Corita tragically falls right into the sizable crevasse between street propaganda, theorized critique and respectable indeterminacy.

Predating the enunciations of both Marinetti and Pope Pius, Rudyard Kipling provides a more nuanced rumination on steam power and the soul, in the 1894 poem “McAndrew’s Hymn,” in which he asks: “What I ha’ seen since ocean-steam began/Leaves me no doot for the machine: but what about the man?/The man that counts, wi’ all his runs, one million mile o’ sea:/Four time the span from earth to moon…. How far, O Lord, from Thee?”

As in this bleak plea, the problem of art relaying meaning is a problem of the thoroughly instrumentalized world in which we find ourselves, one in which apparently Sister Corita could only cling to her spirit by giving up her faith, her community and her outrage. Art has lost quite a lot in becoming a discourse in which the idea of papal censure is patently absurd. But, as in Kent’s hopeful works, the march of history continues to bring forth possibilities for beauty both visible and felt within.

Through January 24 at Crown Center Gallery, Loyola University, 1001 W. Loyola.

2 Responses to “Eye Exam: A Modern Nun”

  1. Jeriah Hildwine Says:

    Hey Bert,

    I’m not familiar with Kent’s work, but would like to comment on the politics issue. On my way to the studio today, I had a conversation with my friend Elise Goldstein (Chicago-based performance artist,, who helped me to clarify my thoughts on this issue. I suspect it not the issue itself, but rather my position on it that you misunderstand.

    It isn’t that “visual stimulation connotes complexity,” it’s that aesthetic experience creates engagement. This is the difference between viewing a successful piece of art, and hearing yet another depressing horror story on the news. The news article we see, hear, or read, we may ruminate on it for a while intellectually, and in particular cases may even experience some genuine emotion over. The effect, however, is superficial and usually not very long-lived. Our brains quickly de-prioritize the distant issue in favor of more immediate concerns. A work of art has the ability to affect us entirely differently. At its best, the experience art creates can be truly visceral, quite literally: it hits us in the gut, and we have learned to trust our guts. When a work of art affects us physically in this way, the effects are more long-lasting, and this duration allows us time to contemplate the subject at greater length. It is the duration of this contemplation, rather than the initial stimulation (visual or otherwise) that eventually translates into complexity, not so much in the work itself, but in the viewer’s long-term response.

    Nor is it that “ambiguity connotes depth.” Rather, it’s that a nuanced investigation leaves an end open for the viewer’s contemplation, while the didactic presentation of a polemic position as tautology leaves the viewer only the simple, binary choice of agree/disagree. An overt message that is exactly what it appears to be on the surface functions in much the same way as the absence of aesthetic experience: we perceive it, accept or reject it, and move on. More nuance (note, not “more ambiguity”), like visceral experience, provokes prolonged contemplation, and it is this prolonged contemplation that can lead the viewer to a position of greater depth of understanding.

    The reason that I suspect you misunderstand my position rather than the issue itself is that your own creative work functions quite successfully in the ways that I described. Your Faggot Fence, which I saw at Home Gallery, is exactly the kind of political art that I find successful. It creates an aesthetic experience, a physical experience, for the person standing in front of it: the tiny body puts the viewer in the position of feeling much larger than the vulnerable other, and its elevated position on the way creates a disorientation, the strangeness of looking up at something smaller than yourself. The construction of the object was skilled, not virtuosity for its own sake but evocative of the sense of the scene, creating the very kind of aesthetic (and visceral) experience I’m talking about. Moreover, the simple depiction of the scene, coupled with the strongly-worded title, is in no way ambiguous, but it is open-ended enough to allow the viewer to ruminate on the issue and its permutations for a while. Imagine, for contrast, a sloppily-lettered tagboard sign reading, “REMEMBER MATTHEW SHEPARD” or “HOMOPHOBIA IS BAD, M’KAY?”, hung in place of your work. The effect would hardly be comparable. This is a piece that has stuck with me, precisely because it works the way I think political art must, if it’s to be effective: by hitting the viewer with an aesthetic force that becomes physical, visceral, and leaves him or her to contemplate the problem in his or her own way.

    Peace, and I look forward to seeing, and reading, more good work from you in the future.


  2. Bert Stabler Says:

    Hi Jeriah–

    That is just such a disarming move– the rhetorical judo throw of unexpected touching personal compliments. I have been called many things, but hopefully never a cad. So I will merely thank you sincerely, and offer that I thought your first paragraph (about the oil-can syringle, etc.) was hilarious.

    I will say that you and I have different tastes in “political” art, based on the art you appreciate (though I too find the Serra boring and the Botero absurdly boring), and I do think what some artists present as “nuance” is often actually half-assed dithering and mumbling, and “aesthetic experience” is great if it’s great, but can often be merely competent and devoid of purpose.

    But yours was one of the most well-written articles I’ve ever disagreed with, and thanks again for the nice words.


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