Exhibition review: There will be New Rules Next Week, Dundee

Works by Sister Corita Kent: Come off it, 1966. Picture: Contributed
Works by Sister Corita Kent: Come off it, 1966. Picture: Contributed
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Printmaking is back in vogue thanks to the influence of an American nun whose work is at the centre of a new exhibition at the DCA

There will be New Rules Next Week - Dundee Contemporary Arts

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If a decade ago you’d asked me to predict which unlikely medium was going to capture the imagination of a new bunch of artists who grew up in the digital age and were educated in an era which might be seen as the high watermark of art theory, I would have openly scoffed if you told me it would be the genteel art of printmaking.

And if you’d then said that a cult figure among such artists would be a long dead American nun whose oeuvre included illustrating religious homilies and encouraging audiences to dress up in coloured tissue paper and recite poetry, well my professional pride would have been on the line.

But then along came artists like Ciara Phillips, an Irish Canadian who, based in Glasgow since she studied for her MFA there, has been quietly proselytizing on behalf of print and rallying like-minded artists into activities like Poster Club, a loose artists’ collective utilising her screen-printing skills for artists of radical bent.

And there is Ruth Ewan, a London-based Scot, who uses print to echo the didactic visuals used by campaigners and idealists from early feminists to the Socialist Sunday Schools that she featured in a highly successful exhibition at the last Glasgow International art festival.

And among the influences on both of these very different artists is a single figure, Sister Corita Kent. Born in 1918, Kent taught at the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she spent 20 years as an educator in the art department, as well as taking part in and creating festivals, street protests, religious and political parades.

Trained in art history and printmaking and inspired by the economy and immediacy of the printed word in religious and evangelical traditions, Kent is a figure who both embodied her age and has transcended it. A spiritual mentor, activist and communicator.

A selection of historical works by Kent is at the centre of DCA’s contribution to Print Festival Scotland, a celebration of print and the Impact8 International Printmaking Conference Dundee. The show brings Kent together with a new generation inspired by her, and charts her progress from early tentative works that emphasise extracts from scripture to radical posters against the Vietnam War.

In her later career, Kent left Immaculate Heart and lived and worked in Boston. Her late work, some of which has a little too much of the whiff of the corporate image-maker, had the widest audience. Her most successful work, a commemorative postage stamp bearing the word love, had a circulation of a reputed 700 million.

If these days Los Angeles is seen as having developed a unique brand of pop art in the late 1960s, then Kent’s work is unique in pop art full stop. Fusing the language of advertising and commercial packaging and pop psychology, with a kind of ecstatic evangelism and political activism, it’s noteworthy now for its vibrancy, playfulness and cleverness of communication. Her installations and performances were similarly direct and she encouraged her students to produce happenings, banners and booklets as well as prints and collages. Her art was utilitarian and purposeful, where pop art was studiously neutral, didactic where abstraction was self-contained.

But Kent was no savant. Her graphic work was supported by no lesser design stars than Saul Bass and Charles and Ray Eames. Celebrated 1960s idealists like Buckminster Fuller were inspired by her political and spiritual example.

Of the contemporary artists in this show, it is Phillips who bears the closest relationship to Kent. Last year, at Spike Island in Bristol, she took Kent’s activism to heart and set up an open studio in the venue, producing a magazine Irregular Bulletin inspired by Kent’s. Her own work was shown with Kent’s in what was then the largest show of the US artist’s work to date.

Phillips is a brilliant print maker who imbues the medium with a freshness that is remarkable, in posters, prints and textiles. At Dundee, her vast banners, with repeating motifs of a glass paperweight, a fashion photograph and a circle, are constructed to look like an unspooling reel of film. Phillips makes print feel simultaneously static and moving, machine and handmade, immediate and mysteriously esoteric.

Scott Myles is a cooler figure altogether, playing with print’s ability to seduce and confuse and the politics of scale and context. His work is a reprise of work shown in a previous solo show at the gallery. The text Good Acts Wanted, writ large in black and neon orange, might be a religious injunction or the scribbled note of a would-be pop promoter.

The jaded palate of painter Peter Davies strikes a jarring note in this celebratory atmosphere. Davies is a sly painter of text paintings and graphic imagery, subverting Kent’s style immediacy for a more melancholy tone. His painting Why is British Art so Crap, a colourful text rant about perceived mediocrity of British art, is both an act of rebellion and quiet desperation. Davies’ critique is funny and acute and just occasionally terribly unjust. The quiet implication is his own art is similarly ill-fated.

But for all its enabling activisms, history and hierarchy are not exactly absent in Kent’s art. The work adhered to clear tenets of graphic design and passed on spiritual truths which are sometime old fashioned paternalistic religion in 1960s rainbow garb. It’s notable when you watch a series of short films made at Immaculate Heart by Baylis Glascock, that inspirational as it is, Kent’s art teaching and art making was also highly structured and at times comically rigid.

It’s here we see the difference between generations. At the centre of the show is an installation of Kent’s art department rules. The rules were an open pastiche of the rule, the elaborate discipline imposed for centuries by religious orders, but they still suggested that art was a discipline and artists themselves must be disciplined.

Ruth Ewan’s simple print, made when she worked with children from Menzieshill Primary School in Dundee for her solo show in the city in 2011, was inspired by Dundee’s 1911 school strikes. Kent’s rules state: “The only rule is work,” or “There should be no rules next week.” Ewan’s text print simply states. “Nae Rules.”

Until 23 September