Someday is Now is the first full-career survey of the work of singular artist and activist Corita Kent | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Someday is Now is the first full-career survey of the work of singular artist and activist Corita Kent

Kent encouraged her students and others to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Image courtesy of Corita Art Center, Los Angeles
Corita Kent's "E eye love" (1968)

"Rule 7: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things."

This rule, from a list entitled "Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules," is one of 10 compiled by the artist, activist and educator Corita Kent. Rule 7, in particular, captures the type of dedication that Kent gave to her own life's work. It speaks to a disciplined curiosity that evolves from an inquisitive and dauntless life.

Kent was a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and was an alumna of Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she later taught in the art department from 1947 until she left the order, in 1968.

Kent gained popularity in the 1960s and '70s as a graphic artist. Her serigraphs, murals and other commissions combine spirituality and a commitment to social justice. Kent studied art history at the University of Southern California, and it was there that she took a class in printmaking. As a populist medium, printmaking was historically used to disseminate ideas quickly and affordably. Like the German expressionists, WPA artists and Taller de Gráfica Popular printmakers before her, Kent clearly understood the power of the medium to reach a large and diverse audience. She was drawn to it both aesthetically and practically, and many of her designs easily translated into posters, billboards, record-album jackets and, in 1985, a U.S. Postal Service Love stamp.

While there have been many exhibitions of Kent's work, Someday Is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, at The Andy Warhol Museum, is the first to cover her entire career, including her more introspective watercolors made in the final years of her life in New England.

The exhibition is curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and Michael Duncan, an independent curator and art critic, in collaboration with the Corita Art Center, Los Angeles. It is divided into sections that follow a more-or-less linear timeline. Displayed salon-style, the sections begin with her early, more directly religious subject matter, and end with her watercolors.

Dominated by religious iconography, some of her very earliest work intertwines text with biblical scenes and figures. Starting with scripture, Kent later began to incorporate quotes from favorite writers such as e. e. cummings and Gertrude Stein. Other influences, such as folk art and abstract expressionism, also began to show up in her early work. But in the 1960s, inspired by artists such as Warhol, Kent developed her own version of pop art by mixing bold numbers and letters, bright colors and provocative texts that were often written in a distinctive cursive.

Rather than mere appropriations, Kent manipulated recognizable fonts and slogans from magazines, advertisements and signage. Symbols such as the Wonder Bread dots and the scripted General Mills "G" appear cropped, inverted, reframed and over-laid with texts and lyrics. The original meanings are subverted to serve her aesthetic goals as well as to deliver her humanist messages.

As a teacher, Kent encouraged her students and others to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary. In 1966, she developed a technique whereby she would take a photograph, crumple it, re-photograph it, enlarge it and from that create a stencil in which the texts could warp and bend, rendering layers of meaning.

As Kent's imagery became more overtly political, her radicalism clashed with the diocese in Los Angeles. In 1968, she decided to leave the church and move to Boston, where she pursued her art full time until her death, in 1986.

While many of the works in the exhibition deal with war, racism, poverty or death, they are not all gloomy. In fact, they are mostly bright and exuberant. "The Beatitudes," a striking 40-foot banner commissioned for the Vatican pavilion for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, features the word "happy" in large letters several times. And two sets of alphabets displayed at the entrance to the exhibition add flash and wit. One uses vintage circus images, and the other borrows from sailing flags.

Kent was clearly very prolific, and it's difficult to take in the whole show all at once. In addition to her many prints, there are two films showing in a central space that also includes a hands-on activity area inspired by her teachings. If you feel a little overwhelmed, head over there. After all, Rule 6 states: "Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail. There's only make."

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