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