In the chambers of the crypt, the skulls and bones of more than 4,000 monks are stacked like items on the shelves at Home Depot. Many are at least 1,700 years old, as are the relics in the rest of the Roman Catacombs, a vast underground mausoleum containing the remains of early Christians, including martyred saints. Artist Sharon Kopriva uses this and related sites as a starting point for her paintings and life-size sculptures of ecclesiastical figures who maintain their religious lifestyle years after their death.
Influenced also by the recently unearthed mummies of Peru, Kopriva's figures have the similarly desiccated, leathery features. If it sounds grisly, her stuff is oddly light, almost humorous. Yet, nobody knows for sure what she's up to; critical essays about her work often see gravitas where others see singing nuns from beyond the crypt, so it all depends on your point of view. For instance, Sister Theresa, a papier mache and mixed-media nun, stands 5-foot-5 even though she's probably shrunk a bit in her old age. She has the parchment skin of a mere 120-year-old, so her religiosity -- she still fingers her rosary -- may have helped keep body and soul intact. As with other figures, Theresa's face has a lifelike, if shriveled, look of piety, while her hands (they say you can always tell a woman's age by her hands) display the extruded nails and bony talons common to mummies everywhere.
Nearby hang smaller, wall-mounted works: Mortality, Rendezvous With a Blackbird and Fisherwoman, small sculptures of antique coffins containing shrouded, partially mummified remains. Large crosses over the bodies recall the early Church, though the outsized blackbird astride the figure in Rendezvous suggests that this has more to do with dream realism rather than any specific historicity. Some paintings along the walls such as Adam's Tree, a kind of leafless crepe myrtle with a muscular, viper-like serpent encircling its trunk, add to the sense of the show as a theme installation a la the late Ed Keinholz, the installation and assemblage pioneer who was Kopriva's mentor.
The biggest piece in the show is Bird in Hand, an ensemble that at more than 6 feet tall features a rather papal figure on a throne. Beneath his tall hat and tasseled canopy, he sits in his shimmering robes and Gucci loafers as if in contemplation, holding a gilded cage containing a bright red cardinal in his lap. Beyond being beautifully, symbolically and rather wittily executed, it's an emblematic piece in a show that takes a rather Felliniesque view of an ancient and timeless religious culture that can sometimes seem as surreal as it is pious.
Of course, New Orleans is filled with its own ancient relics that often look at least as old as Rome's despite being millennia younger. The building known as the Pickery, at 433 Orange St., is an antiquated 19th century warehouse off Tchoupitoulas Street that serves as both an alternative-arts space and a residence for its owners. It has lately been the site of some of this city's best art shows -- as well as some of the best opening-night parties. Last month's Suburbia show was provocatively insightful, and the recent Art in the Dark extravaganza of illuminated works by more than 60 artists was brilliant in any number of ways. A fundraiser for the KIDsmART program for disadvantaged youth, Art in the Dark was heavy on emerging artists, yet was surprisingly polished and poetic. In fact, the whole scene was remarkably reminiscent of what the Contemporary Arts Center once was in its vital early years.
Passersby will see nothing in its weathered brick facade to reveal that the Pickery is beautifully renovated inside, or that it and other nearby artist spaces are in fact nerve centers of local creativity. But they are. Hence it is painful to learn that the city wants to "develop" the area by demolishing these splendid old structures to make way for a parking lot for the convention center. Any "development" that transforms an oasis into a desert can only be seen as an attack on this city's creative soul -- and that's not the sort of development that any thoughtful person would want to see at this pivotal point in the city's evolution.