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corita kent

To create is to relate

Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver
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corita kent – to create is to relate

To create is to relate was the first exhibition in Canada of the work ofCorita Kent (1918-1986). Corita was one of the most innovative and unusual pop artists of the 1960s, who, living as a Catholic nun in California, battled political and religious establishments while revolutionizing graphic design and encouraging the creativity of thousands of people.

This exhibition focused exclusively on Corita’s prints produced during the 1960s. Here we saw a rapid visual move from a muted palette at thebeginning of the decade to one where figurative style was replaced by anincreasing use of large areas of intense abstract color. Words too found their way into her compositions often fragmented whereby they became image and the dominant compositional element. The size of the serigraphs also increased and for Corita the absorption of the burgeoning media signage, packaging, commercial systems and slogans she saw daily in Los Angeles play an important role in the development of her work. She embraced the urban environment, the commonplace becoming far from empty wasteland, rather a vehicle for hope and rejoicing. By her appropriation of the colors, design and advertising of the day, she situated her work within a contemporary popular idiom, generating poetic work in which such visualcommunication is filled with social and human meaning. In someday is now(1964) for example, the partial block letters clearly derive from SAFEWAY supermarkets; enriched bread (1965) includes fragments from the red, blue and yellow of the packaging still used today by bread manufacturer Wonder,and somebody had to break the rules (1967) has the phrase jumbled but taken from a laundry detergent of the day. Her use of a viewfinder to de-contextualize source material coupled with a technique of layering and ‘cut and paste’ collage – critical juxtaposition – create the conceptual methodology to generate new content.

Toward the end of the decade her work evolved to juxtapose song lyrics, poetry, advertising and theological criticism. The culture of protest entered too whereby she turned her attention to racism, poverty, feminism, military escalation in Vietnam – the burning political landscape of the time. These smaller scale prints incorporate documentary material taken from magazine publications such as Life and Time. Seen in pieces such as news of the week or the cry that will be heard (both 1969) her use of posters, formal innovations and the democratic social process that resulted in their mass production reached its critical peak.

Corita titled this series ‘Heroes and Sheroes’, a crucial work being phil and dan (1969) consisting of a news photograph of Philip and Daniel Berrigan burning draft records in protest of US crimes in Vietnam. These two were part of the Catonsville Nine, a group of clergy and laypeoplepeace activists, Father Philip Berrigan achieving notoriety as the firstCatholic priest in the history of the US to serve sentence as a politicalprisoner. The fluorescent colors of these prints recall the politicalgraphics and psychedelic pop of that late 1960s period.

As with many other cultural figures Corita appeared to reach a point of activism exhaustion by the onset of the 1970s; at the end of the decade andat the height of her fame and prodigious work rate, she left the convent where she had spent her adult life. Her work shifted again returning to a more conversational and sentimental nature with simpler, cleaner form rather than the bold statement of the 1960s. In part due to her departure from the vibrancy and creativity which had surrounded her at Immaculate Heart College her move to Boston, New England also signaled a retreat from public participation to privacy.