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Art Review

Sister Corita's Edgy Optimism Endures in Two Exhibitions

February 22, 2000|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Sister Mary Corita (1918-1986) is watching over Los Angeles, she's probably pleased to see that more than 100 of her spiritually inspired, politically motivated posters from the 1960s are featured in separate exhibitions at two university galleries. It's also likely that she might be tickled by the idea that anyone who visits both shows will feel as if they're in a Certs advertisement, in which the cheery mantra "Two, two, two mints in one" is being repeated with giddy, undiminished glee.

This impression is exactly what Corita Kent--activist nun, influential teacher and populist artist--had in mind in the visually jarring, conceptually astute and socially engaged serigraphs she made at a furious pace between semesters at L.A's Immaculate Heart College.

Typically, making a work began with a trip to the supermarket, a walk down the street or a glance through newspaper advertisements. Attracted to the impossible promises and extraordinary satisfactions put forth by ads, Corita casually borrowed their easy-to-read graphics, leaving behind the specific consumer goods they were designed to sell. Her works transform bold logos and catchy visual jingles into joyous, pointed appeals to common human values.

From General Mills, Corita took the general idea of goodness, which the "Big G" was said to stand for. From Wonder bread, she appropriated an abstract sense of wonder, leaving the bland, mass-produced bread behind. Elsewhere, Esso gasoline ads fuel individual desire, unleashing the untapped power within people.

Likewise, elements stolen from ads for Lark cigarettes stimulate experiences of carefree lightness--without triggering a need for a smoke. In Corita's hands, Sunkist lemons serve as potent, loaded metaphors for the human condition: Viewers stand before her art in all their imperfections and frailties, bathed in the warm glow of something bigger than all of us.

A Christian subtext runs throughout most--but not all--of Corita's bold posters, whose bright, Day-Glo colors and snazzy formats have immediate, eye-grabbing impact. Unlike ordinary ads, however, her homemade endorsements of "the good life" are difficult to decipher quickly. More important, they are open to multiple interpretations.

Sometimes printed backward, sometimes upside-down, their oddly cropped words and playfully distorted letters bespeak the edgy optimism of their tumultuous times. Following on the heels of Pope John XXIII's 1962 Vatican II decree, which liberalized the Catholic Church to such an extent that almost anything seemed possible (or at least worth arguing about), Corita's prints embody a sense of radical openness. Dispensing with dogma in favor of forging grass-roots communities based in earthly needs, her works give vivid shape to a sweeping commitment to human responsibility and dignity.

At Cal State L.A's Luckman Fine Arts Gallery, independent critic and curator Michael Duncan has juxtaposed 50 of Corita's silk-screens (dating from 1956 to 1969) with 33 pieces by 18 contemporary artists, including Larry Johnson, Mike Kelley, Roy Dowell, Robert Heinecken, Karen Carson, Allen Ruppersberg and Alexis Smith. Titled "The Big G Stands for Goodness: Corita Kent's 1960s Pop," Duncan's show abounds in pointed visual similarities that echo between the '60s and the present.

At the UCLA/Hammer Museum, artist Julie Ault has paired 60 of Corita's prints (dating from 1959 to 1969) with 31 works made between 1987 and 1992 by New York-based artist, AIDS activist and graphic designer Donald Moffett. Titled "Power Up: Sister Corita and Donald Moffett, Interlocking," Ault's exhibition emphasizes the most narrowly message-oriented of Corita's works from 1968 and 1969, hardly her most original or engaging.

The pairing isn't propitious. Moffett's confrontational works lack the formal inventiveness and multilayered generosity of Corita's much more swiftly produced posters. Here, 21 Iris prints based on photo-text montages originally published in the "Age of AIDS" column in the Village Voice look dated and cumbersome. The earnest, educational purposes they once served are overshadowed by their status as framed collectibles. Even more overproduced and heavy-handed are five hefty, often multi-part light-boxes on which Ciba transparencies of similar format have been mounted.

One of the best things about Corita's recycled advertisements is the way they make a place for intimacy and individuality within large groups and mass movements. From afar, her crisp collages of fragmented, twisted and reversed words, printed from hand-cut stencils and sometimes accompanied by symbols lifted from traffic signs, read as banners that might be found at marches, protests and demonstrations.

From up close, however, you can read the fine print. Corita has peppered her work with sweet poems and charged prose, including selections from Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Camus, Ugo Betti and John Lennon.

"The Juiciest Tomato of All" (1964) transforms a Del Monte label into a stirring, frankly sexual meditation on the Virgin Mary's power. Think of Warhol's soup cans as commercial backdrops against which a modern spiritual drama unfolds, and you'll have an idea of the potent forces that collide--and still resonate--in Corita's efficient art.

*

* Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, (323) 343-6604, through Saturday; closed Friday.

* UCLA/Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through April 2; closed Mondays.

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