Monday, June 16, 2014

Beyond Physical: Sharon Kopriva Speaks

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

She spoke of visiting the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, and it was fun to imagine Sharon Kopriva examining the artistic possibilities of centuries-old Sicilian corpses. In the same breath she said it wasn’t until she went to Palermo that she understood her grandfather’s garden. He planted orange trees, and fennel, and other plants she discovered to be in abundance there in the city of his birth.

Sharon Kopriva, Riding the Pices Moon, 2013, Mixed media on photographic print, 42 x 49 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

It was unnecessary for Art in America to call our attention to forest imagery in Kopriva’s art. For years it’s been evident that nature is on an equal footing with the longstanding themes of death and Catholic religious mythology. Arguably, forest landscape intermingled with gothic cathedral architecture has precisely the same connotations as sculptural mummified religious figures. They serve as referents to actuality that is inexplicable and transcendent. On a recent studio visit I learned the following:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: After a number of years of incorporating nature into your work, the landscapes should now be thought of as established orthodoxy. Self-portraiture on the other hand, numerous examples of which appear in your solo exhibition Illuminations (at Deborah Colton Gallery through June 26), is relatively new. It’s my assessment that depictions of your flying nude body in paintings such as Time Traveling and Riding the Pisces Moon, similarly to those of dogs that fly through forests and gothic cathedrals, originate from something buried in your psyche. This will probably piss a few people off, but have you ever floated out of your body?

Sharon Kopriva: Only one other person has ever asked me that - Walter Hopps.

VBA: The late Walter Hopps organized your solo exhibition at the Menil Collection in the year 2000.

SK: I floated through the walls. My out of body experience took place almost twenty years ago when I was in the hospital. I realize now that if I had not been there in the hospital I probably would not be here today. The thing I remember most as I look back was an incredible freedom, and I recall having absolutely no fear. It is the only time I remember flying THROUGH anything, and it was different than any dream I have ever had. It was very real. I do remember hearing my name called, and called again, and I came back to a doctor who looked more anxious than I was.

VBA: My father did that when he was a kid. He slipped through an inner tube, and found himself up in the sky looking at his body on the pier, and he told me he saw the older kids who were supposed to be watching him crying and screaming. Then he was back in his body vomiting water and crying. Surely Hopps recognized this in your art.

SK: That conversation with Walter was a very brief but memorable moment when he asked me if I had ever “traveled.” Walter was special, on the edge of many things. He sometimes called in the middle of the night. For him time was eternal.

VBA: Even if you hadn’t admitted to floating around the hospital, openness to extra-dimensional reality is easily detected in the sculptural dead, decaying and mummified figures, and paintings of ghosts and phantom dogs. Have you experienced other things not of this world?

SK: Pop, the man who raised Gus, appeared to me after he died. I saw him clearly. He had something important to tell me. It was very personal, advice I followed. I think we all have these opportunities to communicate. Most of the time, we do not allow them to happen. Your questions have allowed me to think about the few times in my life when I reached beyond the physical. They are being revisited in my memory.

Sharon Kopriva, From Dust Thou Art, 1997, Papier-mâché and mixed media, 54 x 23 x 39 (Collection of Nancy Reddin Kienholz)

VBA: It’s well known that travels in Peru shaped the rotting-mummy aesthetic in your art. I traveled that entire country with my archaeology group, so I recognize how closely derived your sculptures are from their Peruvian mummy sources. It was unexpected to see the open pits at Nazca, and mummies with hair preserved and textile wrappings remarkably un-faded, the colors of which by the way account for the ocher, reds, and earth tones in your art. Archaeological interest though was not my sole reason for going to Peru. As you know, Peru is considered the most significant area on the planet for extra terrestrial sightings, and I figured if that is real and it probably is, then it’s the most important thing anyone could talk about, so I went there to talk to Peruvians about their experiences, and heard some marvelous stories. Be assured Robert Boyd will receive a few complaints about silly ass interview questions, but have you had any extra terrestrial encounters?

SK: My experiences in Peru were totally wonderful, but unfortunately remained earthbound. I have not abandoned the possibility of experiences at a later date. I did see the Nazca lines which some believe are the work of extra terrestrials.

VBA: I was certain I would die seeing those lines, kept waiting for the plane’s single propeller to malfunction.

SK: And the planes make those scary loops and turns. I would love to talk more about Peru with you, and although I have not seen extra terrestrials, I believe I experienced an earlier life, which might have been in Peru. We saw the mummies when we first went there in 1982, an elderly guide took us to the burials, and we saw bones, bleached by the sun, thrown everywhere. There were whole limbs, hair, sculls, and of course, missing was the pottery the thieves took, and the wonderful woven cloths. On our next trip almost 25 years later, that spot was "cleaned up," there were still a few bones off in the distance, but the site was suddenly organized. There is a picture of it in my New Orleans Ogden Museum exhibition catalog.

VBA: Masterful is the only word to express the manner in which you capture knotty leg joints and muscles in three-dimensional renderings of your Peruvian hounds Luna, Pluto and Thor. I once saw a superb bronze of Thor with the figure twisted as if about to chase its tail, which reached to Degas’ level of observation and nuance. But the way you distorted your dogs’ images in the Seven Deadly Sins installation at Project Row Houses in 2011 was shameful. Spread through the row house were dog sculptures meant to represent the seven human transgressions. In the rear of the house was Gluttony asleep on the floor, in the form of an obese stingray, surrounded by Frito bags, Big Mac containers and dog shit. You disgraced those animals.

SK: One day I’ll do another sculpture series of the dogs, probably in bronze. Gus and I are forever watching our dogs spin around and interact with each other. Long ago we decided they have all the same qualities as humans when dealing with each other. So when I was invited to do an installation at Row Houses, it was Gus who actually suggested I use my sculptured dogs as actors to demonstrate the sins. What fun. I managed to reserve the only house still divided into rooms, and off we went. Humor is good. I have so often seen my dogs demonstrate envy and greed, of course gluttony and lust. And I have seen anger and vanity.

Sharon Kopriva, Insomniacs Nightmare, 2010-11, Oil and mixed media on canvas, 68 x 40 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

VBA: The thought of you arranging doggie excrement in the row house brings to mind Kienholz with whom you studied after graduate school. As an art history student I was haunted by my first encounter with Kienholz’s The State Hospital, which must have required meticulous manipulation of materials to construct the diseased and decaying figures, as well as unpleasant installation of bloody, urine-stained mattresses. When you handle, complexly, animal bones, clay, cloth, and papier-mâché or arrange sculptural tableau such as in The Confessional are you conscious of Ed Kienholz’s influence?

SK: I am very aware of the Kienholz’s influence. I also knew Ed Kienholz through art history books long before I met him and Nancy. It was Ed who inspired me to move into the more complex installations and multi figure pieces, he continually pushed me to explore new territory. The Confessional was one of my first multi figure works, and perhaps my most important piece to date. I’m grateful to both Ed and Nancy for moving me to a new level. How lucky to not only get to meet my heroes but to become so close.

VBA: Perhaps even more influential than Kienholz was your sculpture teacher James Surls, whom I had the opportunity to meet in 2010 when I wrote a newspaper article about one of his exhibitions. Let me remind you of 2005 when Gus Kopriva organized the group exhibition Still Crazy After All These Years to celebrate Lawndale Art Center’s 25th anniversary, and to evoke the dissipated art student environment of the University of Houston Lawndale studio. As much as the event honored the U of H Lawndale and the subsequent Lawndale Art Center, it was a tribute to James Surls who set everything in motion. I came across an Art in America article from the late eighties in which Surls was quoted as saying he “exploited” his students by arranging exhibitions so they could interact with collectors and curators to experience how “real” artists conducted themselves. In my estimation Prey for Us, your sculpture of an altar boy figure over which a shadow image of a predatory cleric was projected, was a focal point of the show.

SK: Wow, Still Crazy! You aren’t leaving any stones unturned. That was a great show. I saw that exhibition as a chance to re-live history. As you know, the old Lawndale was a separate animal from Lawndale Art Center, it was part of the university and directly involved the students. James Surl's soul was all over it. I was there in 1979 when we put the first coats of white paint over the yellow walls of that old cable factory. Even after Surls moved on, his spirit stayed. The new Lawndale is a wonderful alternative exhibition space, vital to this city, and now has a history of its own. Lawndale and the MFA exhibition Fresh Paint were responsible for kicking off the careers of many young artists in Houston.

VBA: I recently saw some of your wall-mounted relief works at the Spring Street Studios exhibition and witnessed how their mysterious quality silenced a few viewers. You achieved the meditative intensity required to re-direct thoughts to life, death and the nature of reality, which for you obviously stretches beyond the physical.

SK: The four small works at Spring Street were done originally for an exhibit in India. I think we all have the capacity to think or be "beyond physical." I also feel most of us do this intuitively rather than consciously. And I think that many things come forth through art that may not have through the spoken word. Images do come that are sometimes totally conscious and sometimes not. I’m especially interested in art that is beyond real, surreal and most often spiritually motivated. I love the art historical trail through romanticism and symbolism, and believe many of the artists were reaching into metaphysical states in their visions, in search of the spiritual and the sublime.

VBA: You are speaking about the 2011 Mumbai gallery exhibition Phantoms and Milestones in which the ghost dogs appeared with depictions of historically significant events related to struggles for liberty. I’ve not yet been to India, but I’m drawn to the Hindu notion of an energy or force that connects all living and inanimate things, and one day hope to see Banaras where Hindus go to prepare for passage to the unknown reality beyond the borders of life, and pray to escape rebirth. Sharon, you already mentioned a possible past life in Peru and in a 1996 interview you stated “everything cycles.” Explain more about how reincarnation fits into your philosophy.

SK: Cycles of life interest me probably more than any other condition of our existence. I think all of my art is related to cycles in one way or another. Long before India I saw the cycles clearly in Peru. The mummy forms in my sculptures come out of the cycles there. In Australia, I also saw evidence of transformation and cycles in the aboriginal life and art, as I did in India. I do not know if all people reincarnate, but I believe some might. I do not know if I will, but I believe I could. There might be complicated reasons about why and how, but I do believe it happens. Matter is not created or destroyed, it is transformed and recycled. But that's the physical part. There are places where I have stepped where I feel I have been before, particularly in Peru. That's the spiritual part. In Australia, beings are believed to move in and out of inanimate objects. I find that fascinating. A rock may possess the spirit that will become a person and a person's spirit may yet become one with a rock or a tree or an animal. I didn’t have much time to spend in India but hope to return and experience more of that land and culture and learn more about how it fits into the "whole" picture. I do not believe the spiritual part of a person disappears. Some think we just cease to exist, some we either go to Heaven, Hell or Purgatory. I think we might not all do the same thing. I believe the souls of some float around earth, some because they cannot figure out where to go, some because they choose to or have unfinished business. I believe some might take on a new form and cycle again.

Sharon Kopriva, Joan of Arc, 1988, Papier-mâché, burned wood, mixed media, 72 x 36 x 28 (Menil permanent collection)

VBA: The years haven’t dimmed my memory of your Menil show. Why did the sculpture Joan of Arc unsettle me?

SK: The Joan of Arc sculpture is one of three of my works that entered the Menil Collection. I think Walter and Mrs. de Menil chose this work together to be donated by Edward and Nancy Kienholz. Mrs. de Menil was especially moved by the female martyrs. She personally chose Catherine's Wheel to have a permanent home at the museum. And I think of the series of martyrs whose legends found their way into my studio in the mid to late 80's, Joan was my favorite, and she is most people's favorite. It's her story, her role as an early, strong feminist that moves us. She was caught up in politics, first a hero, then proclaimed a heretic and burned at the stake in her teens, thanks to the Catholic Church, then 400 yeas later, proclaimed a Saint. Surely she had out of body experiences, had to be in a trance when she led the army into battle and when she was ablaze. In fact, don't you think all of our martyrs experienced religious induced trances? I think Joan's story is so compelling because she is in regular history books. That puts a mark of “TRUE Reality" on her that I do not believe others have. As part of the process of making Joan I actually set her on fire. A faint smell of that burn remains. Martyrs have always held a special place for me. As a child, I wondered and hoped if put to the test, I could risk my own life for a cause. I have seen real martyrs in my life, like those who acted to help others without thinking of their own safety, silently without needing glory, such as those in 9/11.

VBA: Not martyred, but known for bizarre self-mortifying, was Rose of Lima, on whom you based an important sculpture. It seems her head is in the Basilica in Lima, “uncorrupted” like the head of Catherine in Siena, which I saw a few years ago. Rose wanted to suffer at the saintly intensity of Catherine, so she wore a spiked crown on her head to endure a crown of thorns, and was dead not surprisingly by 31, after which the required miracles made her the first saint to be canonized in the Americas. Did you see Rose in Lima?

SK: Of course, Rose of Lima is so loved in Peru. Yes, I visited the beautiful Church which houses her relic. I have visited it twice. The people are very proud of their special saint. The Cathedral was filled with worshipers the times we went. Rose was a beautiful woman who worked hard to destroy her beauty. You mentioned Catherine, and there are many saints whose bodies are believed not to have decomposed, I have a book, I think it is The Incorruptibles. My Saint Rose of Lima sculpture is in the collection of the museum in Lima. Love that city!

Sharon Kopriva, Saint Rose of Lima, 2006, Papier-mâché, mixed media, approximately 50 x 30 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

VBA: Those shoes! You’re never more perverse then when devising shoes for the religious figures. When I was a kid in Catholic school, the nuns wore black leather lace-up shoes beneath their floor length habits, which to me looked ridiculous. And the priests’ heavy leather shoes seemed ill-suited to their long robes. Comment on the shoes.

SK: It is getting harder to find those nun shoes. All the kids are now in sneakers. The priests’ etc., are a bit easier to find. Once Gus left a pair of damp shoes outside the door to dry out and when he came home they were on a bishop. (I thought he was throwing them away) They looked great on my sculpture and Gus got a new pair of shoes. I have actually spent a great deal of time working on and making correct clothing, rings, shoes and even the belt buckles on my Catholic figures. I have a very good friend who is an ex-nun and enjoys helping me research these details. It is important that they be correct, and I love the research.

VBA: We know from statements you’ve made that the religious sculptures are not a condemnation of the church’s canon as dead or stuck in the past, as has been critically asserted, and that to interpret the art as a denouncement of the church and your Catholic upbringing is overly simplistic. You did say the figures are frozen in time performing rituals that you witnessed when younger, and that in each piece you are searching to try to understand yourself. Essentially, the mummy sculptures, akin to your fantasy landscapes, invite us to contemplate the ultimate enigma, where do we come from and where are we going, simply put, they encode our spiritual search. In that bodily putrefaction, recycling, consciousness, and the eternal imagination are part of the universe’s energy, the artworks facilitate deeper levels of awareness.

SK: Yes, the figures are frozen in time. I liken them to the bodies of saints that refuse to decompose. Years ago the Church sucked us in with ritual and fear, bells rang and we beat our chests and felt holy. All of that fear and ritualistic participation are in my religious figures. They are frozen in time performing their acts of religion. They similarly denote the death and ritual close to the surface in primitive societies. The art signifies my search for self knowledge, an attempt to reach a higher state. My forests as cathedrals, with tree branches superimposed over church architecture, reflect broadening of my religion, an expansion of my spirituality.

Sharon Kopriva, Cathedral Green, 2012, Oil and mixed media on photo canvas, 81 x 186 x 2.5 (Courtesy of Deborah Colton Gallery)

VBA: In 2012 the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans mounted From Terra to Verde: The Art of Sharon Kopriva, a survey of works created between 1982 and 2012. At the time curator Bradley Sumrall wrote that the exhibition reveals “the breadth and unity of her career.” Was it fine to look back on thirty years of artistic expression?

SK: It was so wonderful to look back at thirty years, all in one spot, one clean, lit spot. Bradley did such a wonderful job in preparing the exhibition, he worked on it for a full year, even traveled to my home in Idaho where we hiked my favorite trail and he really "got" the place and understood how it became such an important influence on me in the last ten years. Back to the question: I was looking at the path my life and art had traveled through thirty years and decided to arrange the show to begin in the early 80's underground in beautiful, spiritual Peru, move through my examination of my life and religion, and end with nature imagery represented by paintings such as Cathedral Green. It clarified where I am and where I had been, and the lovely closure was that it mentally created space for whatever comes next, in my own time. There were works in that exhibit that I had not seen in many years and reunited with. I guess we should call it the family reunion, when all the kids come home. Virginia, some might find it surprising that I publicly discussed those personal out of body experiences, but what the heck! Those experiences are part of my life and my art.


  1. A wonderful artist, wonderful interview! Thank you.

  2. A very significant interview about a well recognized story teller that continually captures the scene, personal and time referents in every work. Thank you Robert, Virginia and certainly Sharon.

  3. Beautiful write-up Virgina! Love that woman (and her work).