Corita Kent: there were none like her. That’s one pun I’m not going to apologise for, because Sister Corita Kent liked to have fun with words. And she liked to tell the truth with them and that sentence is also true: there were none quite like her, as this exhibition of flamboyantly coloured prints at the House of Illustration shows.
The American nun was a devoted and sensitive artist who produced her most famous works in the '60s and '70s. The boldly coloured prints combine simplified images or patterns with quotes, usually from the bible or from the torrent of advertising slogans saturating American culture at the time. Kent headed an innovative art school at the Immaculate Heart College in California, one governed by instructions to ‘be happy whenever you can manage it’ and ‘consider everything an experiment’. She also tirelessly campaigned for social justice and civil liberties, including protesting the Vietnam War and supporting Martin Luther King Jr.
What’s not to like? According to the Catholic Church, plenty. Kent’s art, and the department she ran, were subject to constant criticism from the Archdiocese, leading to her leaving the IHM order in 1968. Essentially, what Kent did to annoy her ‘superiors’ was spread a message of peace, love and equality. Outrageous, eh?
But while her biography is fascinating, what’s great about this exhibition is how it foregrounds Kent’s evolution as an artist. Starting with her religious-focused output in the '50s, it moves through to her booming Warhol-influenced pop art and onto her post-IHM commissions for US companies including the postal service.
It also situates these brightly-coloured, modern images in a much bigger context. Kent saw her use of text and image (whether advertising slogans or biblical quotes) as an update on the illumination work of ancient monks. Her choice of silk printing, meanwhile, reflected a belief that art should be affordable and available to everyone.
But ultimately what stands out is how darn beautiful these prints are. Kent’s quality lies in composition, contrast and syncopation. By placing a limited number of components on a page, she makes everything that’s present look brand new, even if that’s just a wiggly pink line or a few words.
So, Corita Kent: there were none like her. And there still aren’t, really.