Sharon Kopriva

Graham Gallery

Sharon Kopriva’s visceral, frequently macabre paintings and sculptures provoke strong reactions—or, at the least, discomfort. With their grim symbolism, fragile identity, and illusory authenticity, the sculptures in particular press their excessive materiality rather insistently against our perceptual consciousness. Are these sometimes Christian, more often pagan, reliclike forms referring to archaeological artifacts, or are they signaling pure effect?

Death is the constant factor in Kopriva’s work. It is confronted as a question of the phenomenology and transcendence of the spirit. Kopriva treats death as a primordial condition that takes place under the sign of the known and the unknown. On close inspection, the sculpture willingly reveals its artifice—the transformation of various animal, vegetable, and manufactured materials (bones, teeth, bird wings, antlers, fur, cloth, clay, papier-mâché) into simulations of terminated being. Layers of one-ply paper soaked in wheat paste and glue, wrapped over simple wood armatures, intermeshed with skeletal fragments, and given a rich, earthen patina, become the desiccated tissue and anatomy of a humanity or animality preserved and/or mummified by the forces of nature.

In some cases these figures are enclosed in large, pit-fired clay vessels, from which they appear to be emerging or within which they appear to be lying dormant. In Dusk, 1988–89, the head of an owlish creature, supporting a pair of full-feathered turkey wings, peers out from and seems on the verge of departing its broken egglike womb; conversely, the fragmented figure in Generic Stone, 1988, apparently deep in final sleep, conveys from its fetal posture a sense of infinitely prolonged calm.

Kopriva employs a symbolism of eternal regeneration, which is played out against the theme of transmutation from materiality into spirituality. Perhaps the most startling instance of this cyclical drama occurs in The Iceling, 1988, a life-sized child-mummy completely swaddled in fur and hemp, except for its oddly ancient, elfish face. Despite the obviousness of the papier-mâché surface and the reduced anatomy—consisting primarily of the head and a pair of clutched, bony hands placed on the suggestion of a chest—the figure as a whole still conveys the physical reality of bodiliness, and the metaphysical sense of being in the presence of death. It is the sort of archaeological find one encounters in National Geographic, only here the creature displays a heightened expression and a universalized, fetishistic quality. In contrast to the aforementioned examples, Joan of Arc, 1988, presents a half-burned female figure bound by wood branches. Her expression of pure suffering shows no signs of relief. A large cross made of bones pierces her throat and gut, at the same time as it provides a handle for her agonized grip. The tradition of saintly beatification is displaced here by something far more grim.

The paintings (small oils painted over photographs) tend to lose themselves in a surfeit of graphic gestures, often getting caught up in a visual dynamism at odds with itself. The smaller works, however, maintain the focused content of the sculptural figures, despite their great differences in scale and physicality.

Ed Hill/Suzanne Bloom