Sister Corita’s Summer of Love
Exhibition at Ian Potter Museum of Art
Review by Heath Chamerski
Sister Corita’s Summer of Love is a vibrant and powerful trip back in time to one of the most turbulent and significant periods in the history of the United States. Through the extraordinary art of Roman Catholic nun Sister Corita Kent (1918-1986), we’re given a unique viewpoint of the events of 1960s America.
Based in Los Angeles, Sister Corita was at the forefront of a movement by the Catholic Church in the 1960s to make the church more modern and relevant in modern society. Her art was one of the most successful methods of doing so.
Sister Corita was heavily influenced by Andy Warhol, which is immediately evident from the moment you enter this exhibition. Her use of the Wonder Bread logo to promote a message of joy and kindness is no doubt something Warhol would approve of. But while the Sister’s pop art style feels like an iconic part of the ’60s art scene, her work is a unique creation of her own. Utilising the process of silk-screen printing, Sister Corita drew further influence from advertising – using logos and famous slogans in her artwork as well as adapting and synthesising commercial branding and media messages into her own distinctive art form.
Her art reflects on the serious issues of the time, including the civil rights movement and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. But perhaps her most powerful works were striking protests against the Vietnam War. The exhibition features an eight-piece grouping of works that powerful oppose the war, utilising magazine covers of the era such as Life and Newsweek, and juxtaposing images of Vietnamese citizens and American soldiers with messages of peace, One of these pieces, Moonflowers, shows an image of scorched Earth with the text “Where have all the flowers gone?” and also the ironic use of the phrase “ManPower!”. The poetic words and powerful imagery here is representative of the impact most of Sister Corita’s political works has.
Her art is also sometimes just simply messages of love – without being cloying or trite. One of the Sister’s most famous pieces, Yes 3, featuring a love heart sitting above the word Love, is brilliant in its simplicity, and remains perhaps her most well known piece. This piece, along with many of her most effective works, follows the main tenets of advertising – keep the message simple and create an iconic image that will stick in people’s minds.
What is most striking about the pieces featured in this exhibition is that no two works feel the same. And perhaps the most impressive section of the exhibition is the 26-part Circus Alphabet – a unique journey through the alphabet with striking use of colour and copious text coupled with early 1900s circus imagery, which has a monumental impact when viewed in its entirety.
Despite her background, very few pieces feature Catholic iconography, with Sister Corita’s artwork promoting a more secular message of love, peace and tolerance. A message that is timeless. Given the current political climate where protests against the US government are taking place on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War, Sister Corita’s message of resistance and opposing injustice are incredibly relevant for the world today. People viewing this exhibition in 2017 will hopefully be inspired by Sister’s Corita’s work, which perfectly captures the fiery, passionate fighting spirit of the 1960s protester, and will be able to continue the fight in the 21st century. It also worth considering if things have changed in the 50 years since Sister Corita completed her most political works, and whether the Catholic Church as it stands now would encourage those within it to protest as loudly as they encouraged Sister Corita
If you have any interest in the pop art movement or in 1960s America, do not miss this exhibition before it ends its run. Sister Corita’s striking work will immediately draw your attention, but the subliminal power of the messages embedded in her work will stick with you for a long time afterwards.