Every day we are bombarded with images in the media that influence our perceptions by reinforcing or challenging our beliefs. It is no surprise polarizing issues tend to steer us to predictable sources when we consume media- it's this behavior that keeps outlets like Fox and MSNBC high in ratings. Art has the power to transcend socio-political subdivisions and invites us to discover deeper meaning behind the images we face and the information we consume. I experienced this while seeing the art of Corita Kent at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
As a nun and an art school teacher at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, Sister Corita was inspired by Andy Warhol after seeing his 1962 show at the Ferrus Gallery. By using attention grabbing graphics, ad slogans and brand iconography Kent used printmaking to re-contextualize these messages and added text or prose to transform their meaning. Through this method she distills a deeper, spiritual message from the original work. Her style of printmaking turned Sister Corita into an unsuspecting Pop Art influencer in the 60's and she used her platform to advocate for social justice.
In one the first examples of her Pop Art prints, Sister Corita took the bubbly happy primary colored circles found on Wonder Bread Bags re-imagined them into the Eucharist in "Wonderbread", a piece created in the same year as the Warhol show at Ferrus. She would later use similar imagery in works about hunger, racism and inequality in the 1960's.
A piece titled "My People" features an copy of the front page of the LA Times on August 14, 1965 with the headline: "Eight Men Slain; Guard Moves In". This was 3 days into the deadly Watts Riots in Los Angeles. Numerous sensationalistic article titles flood the front page with cries of "Anarchy", threats of "Blood Hungry Mobs" and explanations that incorrectly attribute the origins of the discord on the black family structure ("Racial Unrest Laid to Negro Family Failure"). The absence of a balanced dialog potentially leaves viewers with a biased perspective on the root cause of the rebellion, but Sister Corita turns this headline on its end. By simply rotating the front page on its side, she challenges the viewer to physically alter the way they read the text. She then scripts a quote by Father Maurice Ouellet that invites us to consider a different view of the horrific events taking place in Watts. Father Ouellet was an Edmundite priest who marched in Selma and was eventually expelled from his parish for his outspoken views on Civil Rights.
"The body of Christ is no more comfortable now that it was when it hung from the cross. Those who live in the well organized, well ordered, nourished, clean, calm and comfortable middle-class part of Christ’s body can easily forget that the body of Christ, as it now exists, is mostly disorganized, devoid of order, concerned with the material needs, hungry, dirty, not motivated by reason, fermenting in agonizing uncertainty and certainly most uncomfortable. Youth is a time of rebellion. Rather than squelch the rebellion, we might better enlist the rebels to join that greatest rebel of his time – Christ himself."
Her technique of shifting perspective was a consistent theme in her work. As a teacher Sister Corita encouraged her students to look at the world around them through a different lens. She assigned her students the task of walking around with an empty 35 millimeter slide that she called a "finder". By cropping their environment it dramatically alters the vantage point of the viewer'. By using this teaching technique she was encouraging her students to look at a world that they think they know through in a markedly different manner. That transformational shift could lead to new discoveries.
Corita Kent's teaching style was built on principles of collaboration and discovery while using an art form that was not limited to the upper echelons of society. Through printmaking, Sister Corita Kent was able to harmonize her progressive ideas with the universal appeal of iconography to deliver messages of unity, hope and love to a wide audience.
Someday is Now is on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art until November 1, 2015.