Book of Martyrs

Sharon Kopriva transcends the usual mediocre fare of American religious art

For a nation founded in a fit of religious rebellion, set up to serve as a city on a hill, America has produced remarkably little first-rate religious art. There are pastoral visions aplenty, and museumfuls of history painting; there is nature-painting-as-religion (Church), and abstraction-as-religion (Rothko), and even furniture-as-religion (e.g., Shaker). In North America, religion has produced enduring architecture, and literature, and outstanding political theater (William Jennings Bryan, Pappy O'Daniel, Jesse Helms), but little, if any, blue chip painting or sculpture. In America, where art is undoubtedly a secular religion, religion is with few exceptions not a subject of high art.

The reasons are myriad and go back to the founding of the Republic: Enlightenment, Protestant and Puritan prejudices, nativism, reaction against Europe's supposed decadence, economics and demographics. To be sure, religious themes occasionally surfaced in the guise of art-historical allusion, and more recently, as a subgenre of identity politics and shock art. By and large, however, in these United States overtly religious painting and sculpture have been the domain of the madman and the backwoods hermit, the self-taught dauber and the "outsider," the Hispanic Catholic, the quiltmaker, the sampler stitcher and the craftsman.

"Sister Contemplation," a 1996 papier-mâché and mixed-media sculpture by Sharon Kopriva
"Sister Contemplation," a 1996 papier-mâché and mixed-media sculpture by Sharon Kopriva

What, then, to make of the desiccated saints and apocalyptic visions of Houston artist Sharon Kopriva, now on view at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art? At 53, Kopriva is a middle-aged white woman, a former public schoolteacher, who works out themes based on her Catholic upbringing in the form of life-sized, mummylike sculptures of nuns and priests and good, dead parishioners. The sculptures, which are made with real animal bones covered with papier-mâché, include both contemporary corpses sporting clothing and real shoes, as well as dried-up nude renditions of ancient Christian martyrs. Depending on the subject and the artist's intent, the three-dimensional constructions are by turns stunningly realistic and awkwardly caricatured. Kopriva works in two dimensions as well, producing neo-gothic painting in rich oil on clayboard. To the painted work, she sometimes appends animal skulls and bones to create collagelike effects.

The result is religious art produced by an artist neither mad nor self-taught, neither victim nor naïf, an oeuvre that has earned Kopriva some impressive grants and fellowships and carried off prizes, including the Art League of Houston's "Artist of the Year" award. Though the recognition has been mostly regional, there are some heavyweight collectors and institutions backing her, including Houston's prestigious Menil Collection. Kopriva's galleries and collectors are hawking her as an "imagist" artist, the heir to 20th-century figures as diverse as Giacometti, Magritte and the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. Alas, the designation is not particularly instructive, and these precedents (except for Cornell) seem largely off-base. Kopriva's compositions are in one sense surreal, and certainly expressionist, but her concerns and intentions bear little relationship to the preoccupations of these forebears. The same goes for Pillsbury and Peters' attempts to make a connection between Kopriva and George Segal, whose plaster-of-Paris apparitions are tucked into a gallery to the side of Kopriva's show. (Kopriva says she first saw Segal's sculptures this year.)

Kopriva's true artistic lineage is, like her images, pretty much up-front. A committed post-modernist, she owes much to tableaux vivant of artists like Andres Serrano and especially Edward Kienholtz, who, prior to his death in 1994, championed Kopriva's work and took her under his wing. Like Kienholtz, Kopriva is concerned not with the formal issues of modernism or with signs or language. She is obsessed not with parlor games but with the Big Issues: history, morality and death.

For these reasons, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Kopriva owes more to indigenous folk traditions and to the art of Europe's past, especially to the Spanish baroque and Carravagio's dirty, very human saints, than to North America. Kopriva says that she "loves" the Prado, and it shows, for her work, with its dark, rich palette and subject matter, employs all the tools of the baroque: the horror vacui, the love of spectacle, the pathos, the theatricality. Although tempered with humor, Kopriva's work is at its core utterly serious stuff, emphasizing the transience of human life, the emptiness of earthly possessions and human knowledge, love and morality. By putting religious myth into corporeal form, forms we can easily identify with our own bodies, she transforms dead saints and exemplars of heroic virtue from the realm of allegory into something more relevant, more everyday and thus more "real."

Kopriva's version of Catholicism owes much to saint cards and popular legend. No stickler for orthodoxy, she depicts not only martyrs but mystics. Among the martyrs, she sticks mostly to those who have inspired popular cults, like Sebastian and Joan of Arc. For Kopriva, significance of the depicted saints is not rapture but belief, the political act of dying for a cause. Kopriva's view of the church is not uniformly positive. One of her most interesting pieces, "The Raven," conjures up the excesses of the Counter-Reformation. Mummified grand inquisitor, tall pointed hat. Even here, she is working out personal feelings about the church; inquisitor bears the name of a former friend who betrayed Kopriva.

For these reasons, Kopriva's work vacillates in tone between the innocent, even gleeful macabre of some folk art, especially Mexican day-of-the-dead figures, and the bloody, violent religious art produced by Penitente cults of the late 19th century. The indigenous, folk-artsy flavor is no accident. Shortly after earning her MFA, Kopriva traveled to Peru, where she was fascinated by pre-Colombian art and culture. In museums, she gazed upon mummified Indian remains; in the countryside, she saw the scattered bones of such corpses, unearthed by grave robbers seeking to feed the craze for pre-Colombian artifacts. Upon returning to Houston, she began to concoct her bone-and-mache mummies. Over time she refined her processes, clothing her apparitions and producing more lifelike death, moving as well from the one-note pathos of "The Couple" (1986) to subversive and even humorous tableaux, such as "Soul Tickler" (2000). Similarly, in "Matrimony" (2001), Kopriva emphasizes the very practical, earthly purpose of this holy sacrament, the production of little Catholics, by having the bride hold an egg.

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