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.
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