Catharsis: Sharon Kopriva

Darryl Lauster


Sharon Kopriva, From Dust Thou Art, 1996
Mixed media
4 x 5 x 3 feet
Collection of Nancy Kienholz

Sharon Kopriva is a native Houstonian, which makes her something of a rarity. She works out of a studio at Ortman Place (next to Redbud Gallery) in a building formerly owned by her father, who repaired and sold marine equipment there until his retirement. Knowing this reveals a corollary in Kopriva’s work, which is often imbued with personal reflections of her past.

Kopriva’s spacious studio is stacked deep with organic detritus—bones, tree branches, lovingly bundled dead flowers—a host of materials heavy with metaphor. What some see as literal, Kopriva sees as universal. She incorporates such notions into assemblage-based dioramas and autonomous sculptures, each gravid with iconography that is familiar yet uncomfortable.

Kopriva studied at the University of Houston during its renaissance—a period characterized by chaos and dynamism born of its off-campus Lawndale studio. She fondly recalls her time working under Luis Jimenez and John Alexander. Now a successful mid-career artist herself—with solo exhibits at The Menil Collection and the National Museum of American Art under her belt, as well as venues in New York, New Orleans and Germany—Kopriva still considers the most important moment in her artistic career as coming immediately after her degree.

Our brief conversation took place on a cloudy Saturday morning in September in the tidy loft adjacent to her work space. I noted her collection of lavish books on Roman catacombs stacked on a coffee table and jealously eyed her nineteenth-century lithography press. Kopriva started with what, for her, is the beginning:

Darryl Lauster Tell me about some of the themes that run through your work.

Sharon Kopriva After my thesis show went up, I took a trip to Peru. That was 1982. It started everything. The Peruvian mummies captured me. In Peru, they buried their dead in the fetal position. The mummies are so beautiful. Of course, there are so many churches there, too. Christianity, Catholicism specifically, has always been an important part of my work. Suddenly there was a confluence of the two—layers and layers and layers. In Peru, mummification often occurs naturally, unlike in Egypt. It’s the climate.

DL And preservation also seems to relate to religion?

SK The mummies are so sacred. The soul is gone, but something is left. It’s about keeping something. In Peru, mummies were symbolic of rebirth. I think of…how beautifully those people viewed death itself.

DL What of your non-Christian audience? Because your work is so specific, do you fear they are left out?

SK Yes, I consider that, but there are other connections: the primitive, the historic, issues of life and death. It’s something we all have to deal with, whether we consider ourselves religious or not—questions of why we are born and what happens after we are gone. In the end, my work is what it is. People are either drawn to it or turn totally away.

DL It strikes me that many of your figures seem to be in pain. They are not at peace.

SK If I’m really honest about it, the work is my faith seen through my eyes. I was educated in a 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.

DL So it is very cathartic.

SK It’s cleansing.

DL Good word…

SK A lot of the pieces are about suffering. One of my favorites is The Confessional from my Menil show. I wanted to make viewers feel like voyeurs. I looked all over for just the right lights…oh, I hated confession. I think I put all that fear into that piece.

DL I’ve always felt that the priest took on the role of voyeur in the confessional…

SK Yes. It is very odd. And they are hidden…I always knew the father was taking confession when I saw his feet sticking out of the booth. I made that piece based on a church here in Houston.

DL It seems you have a fairly visceral approach to artmaking. Your work has an immediate impact that is more emotional than conceptual. Who are some of your heroes?

SK Joel-Peter Witkin, for one.

DL I also think of Anselm Kiefer when I look at your work.

SK Yes! I love his work. Thank you.

DL How much do you think of other artists? How do you position yourself with regard to postmodernism or other contemporary art strategies?

SK Postmodernism, by definition, removes all limits and embraces new technology. Most of us partake in some part of this aspect of postmodernism, even if only to a small degree. I admire art and artists of a more emotive tradition including Goya, Kollwitz, Kienholz—both Ed and Nancy—and Kiefer, to name just a few. We are in a unique position today of being able to combine and/or fuse old and new. Only the artist limits the definition of what art is. 

DL What are the current trends you see out there?

SK: Trends come and go, but there will always be great art in every era. For me, some of the high-tech, intellectual artworks are wonderful but many lack soul. Some are more about the trend, material, or are more about producing something new than about the art itself. Other rare jewels fuse intellect, emotion, technology and talent. Personally, I need all of it in my life.

DL And if you could predict the future?

SK Well, if everything truly cycles, we should someday find ourselves back painting cave walls with images so powerful that you both admire and fear them— a place where art, life and religion are again one. We are already seeing a significant interest in folk art and folk art environments in our major museums and galleries—a move toward pure, raw, unschooled creativity.

DL So back to you, how has your work changed over time?

SK Well, over the last twenty years there’s been a lot of change. I’m introducing other religions, expanding things globally…I’m researching Islam. I’ve introduced repeated ziggurat and pyramid shapes, really since the war…(suddenly frustrated) Why are we at war?

DL That’s a whole other conversation…

SK It’s a question of how we are going to stay alive. I mean everyone. My work has really opened up that way.

DL And architecture, it seems, has really always been a part of your work, whether framing a composition or as a part of the narrative.

SK Yes, but it’s changed a bit. I’m combining painting much more now, too.

DL And scale?

SK (laughing) It’s slightly smaller than life size. That’s a reference to my height. I’m not comfortable making something taller than my reach. And of course, I’m sure it’s psychological as well. It all comes back to me. The longer I work on something, the more it looks like me and that’s frightening…(laughter). Everything’s a self-portrait, isn’t it? I’ve recently been invited to be a part of an exhibit of self-portraits in Louisiana…we’ll see.

DL What else is new for you?

SK I went to Australia. I was able to take a tour of Aboriginal land—at least a part of it. The Aborigines have rocks that are so sacred, so powerful, that they believe touching them causes death.

DL It seems to me they have a less distinct separation of the physical and spiritual worlds than we do.

SK To touch such power would be to die…it’s interesting in relation to art. I thought of that when you asked me about postmodernism…we have never created something like that!

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