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Arts & Culture

Blue Star’s Kopriva Retrospective Questions Catholicism

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Cathedral Green, (2012)


Influenced by two millennia of Catholic guilt and the ancient mummies of Peru, Houston artist Sharon Kopriva’s ghastly figures — wretched priests, beastly bishops, conniving cardinals, naughty nuns, and masochistic worshippers — are made with animal bones, teeth, fabric, clay, wood, and papier-mâché. Maybe it’s a typo, but another ingredient listed for her Stations of the Cross piece is “pain.” Educated in a Catholic school before the Second Vatican Council, Kopriva says her earliest impressions of the Church were “darkness, fear, penance.”

As an artist, her career-making revelation occurred during a 1982 trip to the ancient Nazca burial sites in Peru where she became fascinated by the mummies, usually buried in a fetal position, similar in appearance to the small child swaddled in a basket in her Ancestral Footprint. Rather than seeing dried-up dead people, Kopriva reveled in encountering the 500-year-old remains. The earthen umbers and dusky reds of the mummies, created by the naturally dry environment, color her sculptures although most of her skeletal figures go about their daily lives much like Day of the Dead calaveras.

The most impressive installation in “From Terra to Verde,” a 30-year survey at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, is based on the confessional where Kopriva received the sacrament of penance as a youth. It’s also the result of a residency she had in the early 1990s sponsored by artists Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, known for their elaborate tableaus of modern life.

More like a theatrical set than the rest of her work, Kopriva’s The Confessional (1992) is lit from within, and through the curtains you can see a grinning priest wearing a black robe and purple scarf sitting in a chamber between kneeling, wizened female supplicants. Though the scene is shrouded in secrecy, it’s hard not to snicker when you notice the priest’s crummy black shoes poking out from under the curtain. Flanking The Confessional is Kopriva’s Stations of the Cross series that substitutes a dead flower for the Christ figure.

Kopriva exposes the pedophilic sins of the priesthood in Prey for Us (2005), an altar boy looking at the words of the title written in blood red on the wall with crayons spilled on the floor. Looming over him, engulfing the vulnerable child, is the ominous shadow of a clergyman cast by a projector.

The Cardinal (1994) is a smug red toad of a man as overstuffed as the chair he overflows. A desiccated pope, a three-dimensional caricature of Velasquez’s Pope Innocent X, is confined to a wheelchair in From Dust Thou Art (1997). But referring to the biggest heresy of all, the shriveled pope has a monkey in his lap and he’s holding a copy of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. A chilling, con artist priest presides over Extreme Unction, with a body laid out, candles placed on a cross resting on its chest and a female mourner who remains attached to the dying by living vines.

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