Corita Kent’s Political and Holy Language in the Context of Pop

Installation view of ‘Corita Kent and the Language of Pop’ at Harvard Art Museums (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Among Pop art’s notable motifs are capitalism, consumerism, and now Catholicism. Situated in the Harvard Art Museums’ new Special Exhibitions Gallery, Corita Kent and the Language of Pop focuses on the work of a true Renaissance woman, who also became a nun at the age of 18 in Los Angeles. Kent practiced her faith at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church and eventually studied and taught art at the college there, a simultaneously devoted artist, activist, and nun. The majority of the 60 screenprints on display here are signed “Sister Mary Corita.” Organized in six parts, the show homes in on a prolific five-year period from 1964 and 1969 wherein Kent created a large body of silkscreen work. The show aims to decipher Kent’s lesser-known work within the broader context of the Pop movement, but is there any room to add to the vocabulary of such a ubiquitously digested and understood movement as Pop?

Installation view of “American Sampler” (1969) by Corita Kent (click to enlarge)

Curated by the museum’s current consultative curator of prints, Susan Dackerman, the exhibition does an excellent job of using other artists’ work — even from Pop heavyweights like Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, and Roy Lichtenstein — to contextualize Kent’s own screenprints rather than speak over them. The show attributes Kent’s marginal reputation to her being too religious for art and too artsy for religion. This claim, however, seems tone deaf. Coming from the era of full-throttled modernity that brought us things like the American supermarket, Kent’s work and politics sought to update our understanding of and engagement with religion. And considering her participation in and advocacy for Vatican II — a series of religious reforms made during the early 1960s to modernize church doctrine — the lack of reverence for Kent’s work goes beyond her non-secular lifestyle.

To a degree, the artist’s role as a nun alienates her from the art world; however, the more salient yet unspoken reason for this is her role as a woman. Perhaps the show glosses over of Kent’s position in the art world as a woman in order to not overstate the obvious inequalities that were and still are at play. But given her veritable outsider artist position, it’s important to at least keep Kent’s gender in the back of one’s mind when assessing her work and its place within the Pop zeitgeist.

Installation view of ‘Corita Kent and the Language of Pop’

Beside every Marilyn Monroe silkscreen and Jasper Johns flag is an equally impressive, though less iconic, piece of work from Kent. Indeed, Kent’s inherently politically charged work makes the Warhols it is exhibited next to look watered-down. Beginning with the LA Pop scene and ending with her 1971 “rainbow swash” design for Boston Gas, we see Kent’s work ebb and flow in its political charge. Her earlier prints such as “the juiciest tomato of all” (1964) engage biblical scripture in a lighthearted, fluid discussion with advertising and pop culture in a way that feels timely and witty without trying too hard. Quips and phrases from Biblical scripture feel at home next to advertising copy. Ads for foodstuffs especially are appropriated to draw comparisons between physical and spiritual sustenance thus updating our engagement with religion. The quotidian and ubiquitous are used as a way to understand the ancient and lofty.

Installation view of ‘Corita Kent and the Language of Pop’

Unlike the more dogmatic icons in the show — like one integration of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup series as a box — Kent’s work oscillates from the colossal to miniscule. In “the juiciest tomato…” the letters for “tomato” are gargantuan while smaller text in Kent’s own delicate handwriting describes and elucidates the tomato’s connection to the virgin mother. Kent’s later work such as her 1969 prints regarding the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are more socially engaged yet subtler in their aesthetic. For King, Kent’s work offers only a humble mantra: “the king is dead, love your brother.” Like Warhol’s prints of the John F. Kennedy assassination, which occupy an entire wall of the gallery, Kent’s images are deceptively straightforward in their execution but laden with sociocultural significance.

The gift shop selection for ‘Corita Kent and the Language of Pop’ (click to enlarge)

The nuances of her work suspend it in a realm of duality. The powerful, often masculine, aesthetic of Pop arrests its viewers with grandiose, capital-driven images with undertones of a new consumerist identity. Kent’s works employ this visual opulence, but to engage her viewers in a dialogue that goes deeper than the images’ buying power. Those who only want to see bright, text-based Pop can peruse over the letters “TOMATO” “POWER UP” or “GIVE THE GANG OUR BEST,” but visitors who spend more than the average eight-second glance with Kent’s work will notice how she intricately weaves the contemporary with the historical, the religious with the secular, and the low-brow with the high-brow. The exhibition even elevates her work to true Pop status by arming the museum’s gift shop with mugs, posters, and other Kent-themed tchotchkes, displayed on top of kitsch trinkets emblazoned with a Campbell’s soup can. Though with consumerist underpinnings, the relic-like objects on sale, like a rosary or devotional card of a Catholic saint, exemplify how Kent distilled a Pop narrative into a larger political and religious conversation.

Corita Kent and the Language of Pop continues at Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Mass.) through January 3, 2016. 

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