Faith and War: The Art of Sharon Kobriva and Ed Wilson

Landmark Gallery, Texas Tech University

Peter S. Briggs

Speculation suggests that religion and war spawn about seventy percent of imagemaking in the world. Toss in death and this Cecil B. DeMillean ménage à trois might approach ninety-five percent. While this ratio may have suffered under modernism, it is currently on the rebound. Faith and War evidences two of the three components in question. Sharon Kopriva maintains the triumvirate in ample representations of mortality play. This seventeen-year survey of her work, including sculpture, drawing, relief and painting, contrasts sharply with Ed Wilson’s metal reliefs, all produced in the last year. However, this temporal disequilibrium hardly impacts the texture of the show. Curated by Joe Arredondo, the judicious installation of Kopriva and Wilson’s work at Landmark Gallery is not at all disproportionate. The earthly entanglements of these artists fit together quite well.

Kopriva’s ideological engagement with faith, explored through mummified humanoid figures, mystical introspection and religious theater, tempers a media juggernaut with consistency. Wall-mounted sculptures depict the ritual death of the ever-popular St. Sebastian and my namesake, St. Peter. These steer us sullenly to Kopriva’s installation of religious, specifically Christian—all right, Catholic—duplicity. An altar boy standing alone on an island of stained black and white tiles stares uneasily at a crucifix, while the shadow of a mitered bishop engulfs the youngster. Wine-colored crayons (yes, the blood) lie on the tiled floor below a youthful scribble on the wall reading “prey for us.” The image and glib title suggest a descent from faith to ritualized carnal abuse, the social reality of which is undeniable.

The unambiguous agenda of Prey for Us contrasts sharply with works like Big Red, Iceling and Eternal Bliss—Kopriva’s signature incarnations, which, like any successful memento mori, both seduce and caution. They suspend decomposition and needle voyeuristic curiosity. Eroded figures beckon—these eclipsed hominids belong as much to science fiction as to natural history museum dioramas. Big Red hangs on the wall—ossified—wrapped in gauze and organic materials and loosely girdled with a string of shells. Exploration of its crevices proffers the intimate discovery of detailed deterioration and veiled, sumptuary paraphernalia. Eternal Bliss coddles a desiccated couple exhumed from some distant bog, locked in frozen ecstasy (perhaps position number 42 from some Luddite love manual)—preserved postmortem in the embrace of postorgasmic affection. Except for Prey for Us, Kopriva’s works evoke eerie realities that straddle the worlds we know (and may or may not believe in) with suspicion and inaccessibility, which is, perhaps, the space between knowledge and uncertainty where faith resides.

Ed Wilson, The Big Bully on the Block, 2006
130 x 124 x 27 inches

The objective, hard-edged control evident in Ed Wilson’s work veers dramatically from Kopriva’s visceral explorations. His series Evacuation Sites travels deserts of abandoned architectural space, each rendered void by implied conflict. A grid of the artist’s De Chirico-like works traverses the gallery in varying degrees of complexity, all inhabited by impartial loneliness. On an adjacent wall, a row of eight, arched aluminum niches envelops signifiers of contemporary warfare: a solitary skyscraper (target), a suicide bomber (warrior), a mushroom cloud (destruction) and so on.

The monumentality of Wilson’s theme finds parity in the scale of The Big Bully on the Block, an eleven-foot-tall tank installed at an aggressive, off-kilter pitch, which threatens the neutrality of the space. More modestly scaled works such as Big Diesel, a locomotive charging from a dark tunnel, further investigate Wilson’s interest in the mechanics and machinery of aggression, suggesting a kinship with the violent pandemonium of futurism. Cut, bent, hammered and welded sheets of unembellished steel soften into mottled, rusted surfaces with sparse glimmers of patina. The unpolished rawness of the work is seductive.

Sharon Kopriva, Prey for Us, 2005
Mixed media
72 x 72 x 60 inches

Without overt judgment on war, Wilson’s vignettes coax the steely conclusion that belligerent behavior is a character trait that distinguishes our species. Personally, I would have titled this exhibition A Modest Adjustment. War tends to get a bum rap. We bemoan its consequences yet incessantly embrace its effectiveness, while faith, a fundamentally irrational belief system, justifies with aplomb humankind’s penchant for organized slaughter. War is persistent but not uniquely human, unlike faith, the habitual apologist. This exhibition’s greatest strength is that it does not overindulge in moral sharpshooting, yet it effectively reminds us of the duplicity of our mammalian disposition.

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