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In that they may have life (1964), Corita Kent turned images from a Wonder Bread wrapper into a meditation on poverty and hunger that includes quotes from a Hazard, Ky., miner's wife and Mohandas Gandhi.
September 4, 2016 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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There’s something about Corita


A few facts to begin:

  • I cry in trailers for movies. If I haven’t watched TV in a while, adverts for insurance, milk, and phone plans get me. One time, hungover, a giant back-of-the-bus advertisement for an old peoples home reduced me to tears. I am soft.
  • I spent a (short) time as a born again Christian.
  • My own art work and research interests are invested in a) found text, b) empathy and sincerity, c) feelings.

It’s not surprising I fell in love with Corita.

Sister Corita—a Catholic nun, artist, and teacher—is my kinda gal. Her bold colourful screenprints glean their source material from scripture, advertising, music, and pop culture. Quotes from E. E. Cummings, Martin Luther King, and Simon and Garfunkel mingle with those from Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. She sold her work to the people, at markets, stalls, and fundraisers. She shared her craft with people through murals, happenings, and teaching. She was earnest, sincere, clever, political, witty, and quietly radical. She challenged her own faith in a time where the Catholic Church was going through tumultuous change, in the end leaving her ostracised from her community. Her work radiates hope, love, and concern for the world around us. She is unapologetic and completely sincere. I don’t know the last time I felt so… cheerful in a gallery.

The exhibition is supplemented by a selection of works chosen by City Gallery’s Chief Curator Robert Leonard. The works in these three galleries read like a disclaimer. Don’t get too comfortable in Corita’s cheerful world. This is still a serious art gallery.

“[Corita] Kent doesn’t fit into the suspicious, conflicted, cynical, agnostic (aka ‘critical’) attitude we associate with contemporary art,” Leonard stresses in his essay. But don’t worry, this is where the curators army of contemporary (male) artists come into their own. Parekowhai’s punny four formica Micha’s, and Michael Stevenson’s willfully naive depiction of small town religious Jesus Saved my Life, and the California Jesus depicted in Boy with the Surfboard Cross are all presented wrapped up in a evangelical soundtrack. In the larger room, placed as an altar piece of sorts is the obligatory McCahon—‘New Zealand’s answer to Corita’. It seems dour and depressing.

I expected the crew of contemporary artists—their irony, ‘complexities’ etc. But what throws me with these rooms is the three other pieces on display. The non-art or “recent Christian videos featuring kinetic typography.”

Each room is host to a video work by, respectively, One King Productions, Jake Grochowalski, and beat poet David Bowden. This decision to include these three video pieces in the show has left me torn. On the one hand they represent well the contemporary version of Corita’s commitment to making God ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’. Corita used the language of pop, these guys the language of movie trailers and viral videos. However the difference is intent. Corita was aware of the way in which her work was operating, and being experienced within a ‘contemporary art’ context. These works are presented in a context where they are, almost, being mocked. The videos are sincere, but being used by the curator insincerely. I am just not convinced the producers of these works were under full disclosure of the context in which they were included in the show. And I think that is unfair.

I left the show mildly bothered, but then again have been back four times. The lack of sincerity on Leonard’s side was irritating but expected, the inclusion of the ‘non-art’ videos morally dubious but ultimately interesting, and the whole thing, although segregated, worked.

Go see it, it’s good. Take your Catholic aunt, your mum, a child. Feel happy. Hum a Simon and Garfunkel song. Live, Laugh, Love. Buy a postcard. Enjoy it.

And if you hate that kind of shit or end up getting overwhelmed by joy, go stare at the McCahon.


What’s on this week:

Circuit Symposium 2016: Phantom Topologies

Saturday, 10 September

City Gallery Wellington.

$40 waged / $20 unwaged



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