Pull Everything Out
Corita Kent and Ciara Phillips
Spike Island, Bristol
30 June - 26 August
Review by Dawn Bothwell
In ‘Pull Everything Out’ at Spike Island, Corita Kent’s work is presented in a two-person exhibition with Canadian, Glasgow-based artist Ciara Phillips. This exhibition presents three important aspects of Kent’s work: showing her creative and innovative printmaking style; her politically charged print work which drew upon the liberating aims of society in the ‘60s and ‘70s; and her influential teaching ideologies.
Corita Kent’s (1918-1986) work was iconoclastic while it explored the double meanings held in editorial/graphic layout and drew upon American consumer culture. She worked in parallel to the Pop Art movement, using the new advertising vocabulary which surrounded her. Kent’s work was a product of an explosive cultural environment: she was influenced by anti-war, feminist and civil rights movements, while working as a catholic nun during the passing of the Vatican II policies. These policies, which intended to move the Catholic Church closer to modern day society, inspired Corita Kent’s ideas on breaking down barriers in teaching and in art practice, drawing inspiration from everything around her. One of her favourite quotations was the Balinese saying: ‘We have no art we do everything as well as we can.’
Rather than taking the format of a general retrospective, the current exhibition at Spike Island draws upon Kent’s progressive and original approach to producing artwork. Her activity bore direct influence upon the Pop Art movement and wider creative circles, questioning the distinctions between art, craft and design practices. She has been cited as influential upon major figures such as Buckminster Fuller and Ray and Charles Eames. Ciara Phillips’ work sensitively responds to the stylistic tones in Kent’s printed works as she adapts the methods taught by Kent, providing insight for a new audience into her methodology.
In gallery one, two sides of Corita Kent’s print-making practice are separated: her politically motivated works and those focussing on word-play, using imagery and text sourced from advertising. Kent’s politically sighted works echo society’s desire at the time to change social constructs and recognise the value of the individual. She used newspaper imagery of Martin Luther King, victims of the Vietnam War from both sides alongside hand-written transcriptions of work by poets and song writers such as Walt Whitman and Pete Seeger. The political positioning of these works may seem radical considering Kent’s vocation as a practising catholic nun; however it is the similarities between her intentions within the catholic sisterhood and those of the social movements of the ‘60s which are made apparent. They draw a human and current course for belief via activism on behalf of social equality.
Past exhibitions have positioned Corita Kent as a subversive character. In 2008 Aaron Rose curated ‘Sister Corita: Passion for the Possible’ at Circle Culture Gallery, Berlin and declared her (and in the same breath, Jesus Christ) a ‘beautiful looser.’ The clarity with which these works are presented at Spike Island draws focus to the honesty of their intent which has sometimes been over-shadowed in their presentation.
The remaining works by Kent in gallery one focus upon word-play and innovations in text, print and found source material. Phillips responds directly to these works, using screen printing and working directly onto the gallery walls. The relationship between print and language is explored by Phillips abstractly: pulling out letters and punctuation, turning language into abstracted symbols and patterns which fill the room. Kent and Phillips’ works present the medium of print not as an inflexible method of communication but, when taken into the individual’s hands, one with the potential to develop a new physical presence, a visual language that is an extension of the written form. The manner in which this is carried out by both artists is often delicate with traces of the artist’s hand present. Drawn and sourced pattern is overlaid with handmade marks, symbols and cut out shapes.
In the second gallery, Phillips is running a print studio in open view to the public. Here she works with invited artists to produce a version of ‘Irregular Bulletin’ - the ‘zine which Kent made with her students at Sacred Heart College. This activation of the gallery space places the act of making at the centre of the exhibition, echoing Phillips’ ongoing interests in exploring the labels and roles of ‘work’ and ‘labour’ and those creating through craft and art practices.
The collaborative works in ‘Pull Everything Out’ return to the process of print-making as a means for the individual to communicate with a widespread audience and express their own individuality, looking to a time when popular culture placed importance upon taking responsibility for your own opinion, disseminating leaflets, attending protests and rallies. The ideas and powerful techniques formed in Corita Kent’s generation, which she used to reform art education in her classroom, carried with them the desire that the next era of education should encourage the individual to challenge everything; asking students and artists of generations to come, to respond and contribute to their own environment and escape the passivity of the past.
Phillips’ revival of Corita Kent’s teachings directs attention to ideas that are inherent in her own practice. These ideas feel particularly relevant today, as the national curriculum in schools prescribes less and less freedom for creative thought and rigid course structures in universities envelop tutors in paperwork and away from guiding art students. Instead of simply criticising these problems, solutions are presented: the revised edition of Kent’s book ‘Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit’ includes a breakdown of chapters as they can be applied to the US National Frameworks and Standards for the Visual Arts. Although not a complete solution perhaps these ideas suggest ways to ensure that creative practice is central to the time which is spent making art in education.