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Articles and Reviews

by Susie Kalil, 
Art in America, March 5, 2013


NEW ORLEANS Seductive and unabashedly narrative, Sharon Kopriva’s first full-scale museum show featured some 65 works—sculptures, assemblages, paintings and drawings—created between 1982 and 2012. Kopriva (b. 1948) gained widespread recognition when Walter Hopps curated a solo exhibition of her work at the Menil Collection in 2000. Equal parts archeological dig, torture chamber and formalist exploration, her compelling oeuvre—often consisting of eloquent meditations on the body as well as on ritual, faith and the natural world—possesses the power to bring you to a complete stop.

Kopriva’s sculptures are typically made of animal bones, teeth, fabric, clay, wood and papier-mâché. They frequently depict mummylike church figures dressed in brocaded religious vestments, or flayed and sinewy Christian saints and martyrs. Faces usually lack features and bodies are bony and ghostly. The Houston-based artist was raised Catholic, and a 1982 trip to the ancient Nazca burial sites in Peru further established her interest in ritual imagery. Of her childhood church experiences, she recalled in an interview: “I was educated in Catholic school before the Second Vatican Council. Darkness, fear, penance—these are my earliest impressions.”


By the early 1990s, Kopriva’s work attracted the attention of Edward and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, who offered her a residency at their schoolhouse program in Hope, Ida. Encouraged by their growing friendship, Kopriva began making intricately crafted tableaux. Nowhere is the Kienholz influence more evident than in The Confessional (1992). A tripartite, wood-frame structure (6 feet tall and 5 feet wide) with translucent curtains houses a seated priest with a kneeling female supplicant on either side of him. One hand raised, the other on the bible, the priest wears a black robe and purple scarf symbolizing penance. His black shoes poke out from underneath the curtain. The skeletal women wear tattered, moldy dresses with lacy head scarves over coarse, matted hair. The shimmering light within the confessional booth bathes the figures in a mysterious glow. Modeled on the confessional where Kopriva was administered the sacrament as a youth, the piece represents her attempt to reconcile the contradictions of Catholicism.


In whatever medium she uses, Kopriva’s rigorous process involves a slow accumulation of layers and the careful juxtaposition of elements. To look at her work for an extended period of time is to watch macabre details lose their repulsive character and become almost exquisite. The three full-figure sculptures of Christian martyrs—Sebastian, Peter and Andrew—bound to tree trunks or crosses and mounted to the wall have a strange and wild internal energy. Their bodies lunge and twist as their tied legs and arms stretch in a graceful and terrible dance.

The haunting tableau Prey for Us (2005) was located off a passageway near the lower lobby. In a dark cavelike niche, Kopriva installed a mannequin dressed as an altar boy. Standing alone with crayons scattered on the floor and his back to viewers, he stares at a blood-red scribble on the wall reading “prey for us.” Looming across the boy and onto the wall was a shadow in the form of a clergyman, cast by a projector. The shadow engulfing the small figure, along with the sardonic title, grippingly evokes the church’s abuse of innocents.


Kopriva’s recent paintings take their cue from the mountain forests of northern Idaho, where she has a summer home. These images map the vaulted interiors and stained-glass windows of Gothic cathedrals onto the forest. The monumental Cathedral Green (2012) is loaded with cascades of meticulous brushwork and vertiginous build-outs of actual tree branches. All baroque curves and flickering light, the work bristles with a newfound energy that is primal and perpetual.

Photo: Sharon Kopriva: Cathedral Green, 2012, oil and mixed mediums on photo canvas, 81 by 186 by 2½ inches; at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art


by Raphael Rubinstein

An artist who is best known for her sculptures of human figures and animals—mixed-media constructions that pair the sinewy grace of El Greco’s saints and the decayed physiques of the catacomb or reliquary—Sharon Kopriva has placed architecture at the center of her vision in two recent series of paintings. This is not the first time Kopriva has availed herself of architectural form (her 2008 installation The Conclave, for instance, involves a giant birdcage shaped like a church cupola), but it is certainly her deepest investigation of the subject. The prevailing architectural style in one group of painting is Gothic, specifically Gothic cathedrals, mostly French. In a second series of smaller paintings titled “Milestones,” the artist has focused on a more eclectic set of buildings and monuments.

On every occasion that a painter turns his or her attention to architecture it is worth remembering how, once upon a time, painting and architecture were not so separated as they are today.  The early history of Western painting is essentially a history of how images were divorced from architecture, how frescoes and altarpieces evolved into easel paintings. Although there have been numerous instances of artists seeking to remarry painting and architecture (most notably with the Mexican muralists), these two mediums tend to go their separate ways. However, this primordial separation has not prevented painters from turning their vision to architectural structures; Kopriva’s paintings are among the latest instances of this dialogue. Her choice of the Gothic cathedral as her subject places her in a line that we can trace back to Monet’s sequential Rouen Cathedral paintings of the 1890s, to Turner’s studies of Salisbury Cathedral around the turn of the 18th century and to Caspar David Friedrich’s depictions of Gothic ruins in the early decades of the 19th century.

Of these three precedents, it is Friedrich’s that is closest in feeling to Kopriva’s work. Although her cathedrals are still intact, with even their stained-glass windows in perfect condition, and thus in dramatic contrast to Friedrich’s panoramas of craggy remnants of once-grand edifices, Kopriva makes a visual connection between Gothic architecture and nature that is in perfect keeping with Friedrich’s Northern Romanticism. In several paintings the cathedrals are being slowly taken over by encroaching forests: tall, tapering tree trunks; canopies of green leaves, zigzagging paths. In one painting, The Alchemist’s Tree, a single massive tree encloses almost totally a cathedral interior, with only a single pointed-arch stained-glass window visible through a cleft in the tree.  This ancient-looking tree is rendered even more impressive by the artist’s decision to construct the work as a painting/relief sculpture, extending the base of the tree into three dimensions with her characteristic sculptural skill.

Kopriva begins these paintings by scanning vintage photographs of cathedrals. She then digitally alters the images in various ways: stretching them, flopping them, adjusting color and contrast. Finally, the digital image is transferred at a much larger scale to canvas with an ink-jet printer.  One of the most impressive qualities of these paintings is how Kopriva achieves a seamless continuity between the mechanically reproduced image and the hand-painted image; it’s impossible to say where one stops and the other begins. This lends a striking veracity to Kopriva’s dreamlike scenarios, creating a mood of magical realism.

The natural imagery in Kopriva’s work, especially the tree-thronged cathedrals, draws on her frequent visits to the vast forests and woods of Idaho. (Although based in Houston, Kopriva spends every summer in Idaho where she is part of an artistic community that first gathered around Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.) While the imagery in these mixed-media paintings is based on actual observation, it also emerges from venerable literary and artistic tradition of fusing forests and cathedrals through metaphor. In his 1905 essay “The Gothic in the Cathedrals and Churches of France, Rodin observed: “You enter a cathedral. You find it full of the mysterious life of the forest; and the reason of it is that it reproduces that life by artistic compression, so that the rock, the tree—Nature, in fine—is there; an epitome of Nature.” Several decades earlier, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a sonnet titled “My Cathedral” in which he compared the “stately pines” of a forest with the towers of a cathedral. Imbued with Romanticism’s glorification of nature, and a pantheistic vision of America as an Edenic landscape unburdened by Europe’s bone-filled sepulchers and “marble bishops,” Longfellow preferred the forest’s architecture because “Not Art but Nature traced these lovely lines/ And carved this graceful arabesque of vines.” Similar themes emerge in William Cullen Bryant’s “A Forest Hymn,” a long poem which asserts that “the groves were God’s first temples” where man, before he learned to “lay the architrave” or construct “the loft vault,” could kneel in prayer “in the darkling wood,/ Amidst the cool and silence.” (In an intriguing precedent to Kopriva’s series, John A. Nums’s frontispiece of the 1860 New York edition of Bryant’s poem depicts a leafy wood framed by a vine-covered Gothic archway.)

In the cathedral paintings where the primeval forest is kept at bay something equally startling happens: the religious buildings become settings for scenes of strange choreography in which the gothic interiors swirl with airborne dogs. These unusual-looking canines belong to the rare, ancient breed known as Peruvian Hairless that Kopriva has been passionately raising in recent years. Although Peruvian Hairless are featured in a number of paintings, Kopriva continually varies their appearance and mood. In Insomniac’s Nightmare a half-dozen or so pale dogs curve sinuously through the dark, vaulted space of the Saint Madeleine cathedral of Vezely, France. The feeling in Solar Maelstrom is very different: against the backdrop of Venice’s Basilica di San Marco nearly a dozen Peruvian Hairless are arrayed in a vortex, circling a golden glowing orb within which a dog is curled fetus-like.  The Saint Madeline cathedral reappears in the wonderfully titled A History of the World in Dog Years, but now the structure (and one of the dogs coursing through it) is bathed in a crimson light.

What the Peruvian Hairless offer to Kopriva, apart from the chance to celebrate the sleek forms and attentive visages of her beloved pets, is a kind of surrogate for the human figure. Because the musculature of their bodies is so evident, these dogs become occasions for the artist to paint what are essentially naked forms, figures with all the physical nuances of a Classical nude. There is also an implied religious message. If, in the cathedral/forest paintings Kopriva reconciles Pagan and Christian visions of holy space, in the Peruvian Hairless series she brings together animals identified with Incan culture (and renowned for their reputed healing powers) and the preeminent artistic achievement of Western European Christianity.

If the Cathedral paintings celebrate spiritual energy, the “Milestones” are largely concerned with its polar opposite, the destructive force of political conflict. Each work in the series is like a small votive painting, surrounded by an arched frame and featuring built-up relief elements along the bottom of the picture. The subjects range from legendary moments in ancient history (the destruction of the Tower of Babel, the building of the Trojan Horse) to iconic events of the 20th and 21st centuries, from Kristallnacht to Tiananmen Square in 1989 to the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Rather than evoking poetic reveries in the manner of Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic ruin-paintings, Kopriva’s vanquished cities and crumbling monuments invite visions of terror and death. Their modest scale somehow renders the horrors they depict even more terrible at the same time that it challenges the artistic convention that history painting requires a large scale. And yet, these artfully crafted pictures do not offer a totally hopeless account of human history: one painting portrays the fall of the Berlin Wall and another a Whistleresque vignette of Mahatma Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March. If Kopriva has a keen sense of mortality (of individuals and of civilizations), she is also ready to celebrate the persistence of hope and the new life that can grow amid the ruins of history—that is the real magic of her magical realism.​


by Jim Edwards

Sharon Kopriva first visited Peru in 1982, a journey which included a trip to the Nasca Desert, to the Cemeterios de Chauchilla, a graveyard from the Chincha period of 1000 to 1460 A.D. These ancient open pit burials include the skeletal remains of the dead. The clay tombs are about 8 feet deep and contain the bleached skeletons crouched in a fetal position. They display dreadlocks and are wrapped in textiles and surrounded by pottery and bones. The dozen or so open pit graves (some covered by thatched cabanas), are connected by several hundred yards of pathways in the otherwise dry sandy desert. This is one of the driest locations on earth so even exposed organic matter survives for a long time. In this desolate landscape one of the most arresting sights is the scattered remains left behind by the grave diggers. Just off the paths to the open pit graves are thousands of scraps of exposed textiles, bones, human skulls and clumps of hair. To walk through this patch of desert one feels as though they are traveling through the “Valley of Death”.

Kopriva was much moved by her visit to the Cemeterios de Chauchilla, both as material culture seen as ethnographic evidence and what the site symbolizes as life and death. This visit to the Peruvian desert redirected her thinking and motivated her to construct assemblage sculptures from an array of materials; including figures fashioned out of paper mache, wood, fabric, rope and animal bones, works she painted and stained, creating a convincing look of mummification. Her art dramatically chronicles her Catholic faith while expounding upon religious history and world events. Classic examples of her assemblages from the past include her homage to martyred saints as expressed in Joan of Arc, of 1988, and Catherine’s Wheel, of 1996, both works that are now in the The Menil Collection. Her sympathies for Catholic saints have often been most powerfully expressed for woman who have suffered in life, or those who unselfishly helped others. She has also created sculptures honoring Sister Teresea and St. Rose, the patron saint of Lima, Peru.

Death and a sense of spiritual transformation abound in Kopriva’s art. Her haunting assemblages replicate a sense of human pathos and inevitability. Her assemblages and tableaus appear more august than the celebratory nature of the Mexican festival, the Day of the Dead, whose festive sugar skulls, cut paper skeletons and fruit and liquor laden table-shrines invite the dead to come back to life and party with the living.  Asked in an Art Lies interview, about her figures appearing to be in pain and not in peace, Kopriva replied “ If I’m really honest about it, the work is my faith seen through my eyes. I was educated in Catholic school before the Second Vatican Council. Darkness, Fear, Penance-these are my earliest impressions. You get into the work, and these things just come out”.

A painter as well as a sculptor, Kopriva’s two dimensional works render religious iconography strongly suggestive of an afterlife. Her floating virgins are pictured as apparitions, and her landscapes of towering trees are cathedral-like in their reach towards heaven. In dealing with the transitory nature of life and death, her treatment of the human condition is anything but maudlin. She manages to imbue her art with a quality that is most powerfully felt as virtues caught in transition- cherished as saintly aspiration or human failure tinged with greed and malice.

Kopriva has traveled throughout the world, especially in Europe and the Americas. In 2006, Peru again played an important role in the foundation of her life and art. At that time she was introduced to the rare breed known as the Peruvian Hairless, a domestic dog that was historically much favored by the Moche and the Inca. Known in Peru as Perro Biringo or Perro Calato, or naked dog, the Peruvian Hairless are legendary for their healing properties. These dogs have an unusually high body temperature and are often tucked into the beds of the sick and young children who suffer from respiratory diseases. Archaeologists tell us that the Peruvian Hairless has lived in Peru for at least 4,000 years, as their image has been found on Vicus and Chavin pottery and their bones have been found in the tombs of the Moche. Kopriva and her husband Gus now own three Peruvian Hairless; Thor, Luna and Pluto, and at one time a while back, during breeding time, provided a home for eight dogs , by far the largest collection of Peruvian Hairless in North America. Kopriva’s recent painting, Insomnia Nightmare, pictures the eight energetic dogs romping around through the night at the expense of Sharon’s own sleep. 

Dogs pictured in works of art vary throughout history. In ancient Egypt, the mystical jackel depicted in hieroglyphics and sculpture was known as Anubis, a jackel-headed God associated with mummification and the weighing of the souls of the deceased before their journey to the after world. In Christian art, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Christopher was depicted as a man with the head of a dog, a ravenous creature who ate human flesh, but became human and Christian upon meeting the Christ child. 

In Western art, by the 14th Century, the domesticated dog began to be depicted as a human companion. Giotto’s famous fresco at the Arena Chapel in Padua includes the panel Joachim Returns to His Sheepfold. Pictured in this painting is the downcast Joachim, having just been expelled from the Temple, arriving at his flock in the mountains. His shepherds exchange a worried glace as he approaches, and even his little dog, hesitates in his arrested greeting leap, sensing something is wrong with his master. In 1330 in the Church of San Francisco in Assisi, Pietro Lorenzetti paints his version of The Last Supper, a fresco that features the classic Christian theme of Christ at the dinner table with his disciples. At the very moment that Christ is identifying Judas as a betrayer, in the left hand portion of Lorenzetti’s composition, is the scene of a servant feeding Passover dinner scraps to a hungry dog. It is the introduction of these brief moments of everyday life, including the portrayal of domesticated animals that brings a new sense of humanity into religious art.

In modern art, perhaps the most famous dog is Alberto Giacometti’s Le Chien, a bronze of a thin dog, nose to the ground and slinking along, a pose that tells as much about Giacometti’s own existential, post World War 11 angst, as it does about any hardships the dog himself is experiencing. On the other hand, Kopriva’s own life sized paper mache and bronze sculptures of her own dogs express a life- like alertness that is absolutely true to their personalities. Thor, turns to look behind at someone approaching, Pluto, with ears raised sits at attention, and Luna, his hind end arched and chin resting on the floor, looks up with woeful eyes. The three Peruvian Hairless dogs are Kopriva’s constant companions, in her home and studio in the Houston Heights and in the summers they accompany her to the Kopriva’s summer cabin in Hope, Idaho. We can imagine Giocometti’s dog famous wondering, “Why am I here”, and we can imagine also, Kopriva’s three dogs thinking, “ I am here and please pay attention to me”.


This exhibition represents something of a new departure for Kopriva. The subject of death still presides in much of her art, and yet her recent assemblages and paintings are less dark than those of the past. Her introduction of photographic images printed onto canvas of the interiors of great cathedrals in Europe creates luminous, light filled spaces for her phantom dogs, birds and Popes. In the summer of 2010 I was fortunate to be present when Kopriva began these new series of paintings. At the time she was acting as Artist in Residence at Hans Molzberger’s Hilmsen, Germany Study Abroad Program. Rolled up in her luggage was a canvas that had an imprinted image of the interior chapel of The Basilica of Saint Mark’s in Venice. She tacked the canvas directly on the work space wall and began painting a whirlwind of Peruvian Hairless dogs flying through the vaulted space of the great church. This painting, finished once she was back in the United States, is now titled Solar Maelstrom. Kopriva has also used the Roman Catholic cathedral, Norte-Dame de Reims and the Gothic chapel La Sainte-Chapelle as architectural space for her roaming phantoms.

Two key assemblage paintings in this exhibit are Canis Major and Dawn of the Day Dream, works that both use the arched doorway as an entrance into the composition, with the partial opening between the doors for a view into the light filled cathedral. In Canis Major, on a shelf at the base of the picture are birds gathered around the skull of a dog, and the little box above the dog’s skull holds the ashes of Sharon’s first dog. The constellation Canis Major is depicted on the arched doors and Peruvian Hairless phantoms fly through the night sky. Dawn of the Day Dream features an empty bird’s nest attached to the base of the picture, the flushed birds flying about the cathedral, being guarded by the dogs watching from the top of columns.

In his book Animals and Men: Their relationship as reflected in Western art from prehistory to the present day, Sir Kenneth Clark writes about finding in his friend Edith Wharton’s diary, her expressed fondness for dogs, and her confession about contemporary mans relationship to animals. The great American writer expressed her feelings by writing, “ I am secretly afraid of animals- of all animals except dogs, and even some dogs. I think it is because of the us-ness in their eyes, with the underlying not-usness which belies it, and is so tragic a reminder of the lost age when we human beings branched off and left them to eternal inarticulateness and slavery. Why? Their eyes seem to ask us.” Sharon Kopriva, in her life and her art, has embraced animals, especially dogs and birds; she has captured their “us-ness”, and given them the status as companions in life, and in her art, along with Popes and Cardinals, phantom emissaries, into the after- life.

Jim Edwards received his BFA and MFA degrees in Painting from the San Francisco Art Institute and is a Rockefeller Fellow in Museum Education and Community Studies. He has worked as a Curator of Art for museums in Alaska, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah, but most of his career has been spent in Texas - at the Art Museum of South Texas; Nave Museum, Victoria; San Antonio Museum of Art and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Presently he is Artist/Curator in Residence at Houston Baptist University.​

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