Kaari Upson: never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never
Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles
Through October 8, 2022
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
The late, luminous Kaari Upson’s new exhibition, whose tongue-twister of a title she devised herself, exists at a crossroads of joy and loss, memory and presence, sex and nostalgia, familiarity and alienation, and even life and death — not only because it connects the high-profile work she was showing a few years ago with her never-shown most recent work, and also not only because it’s Upson’s first U.S. show since her untimely passing, but because all of those exact, elusive, inexorable angles were and are foundational to the work itself. The thoughtfully curated exhibition also takes care to include works of sculpture, painting, performance. drawing, video, and installation — the better to honor what was Upson’s wide-ranging material interests and the ways in which her fractal and omnivorous relationship to medium was itself expressive of her tumultuous narration.
The gallery’s wide and high-roofed ground floor is transformed into a moody, theatrically lit expanse in which are arranged the components of two series that debuted in the 58th (2019) and 59th (current) Venice Biennale — the sculptural and performance-based video piece Kris’s Dollhouse, and the mixed media painting series Portrait (Vain German), respectively. It is directly into the softly dramatic, echo-voiced attenuated domestic space of Kris’s Dollhouse that one enters the exhibition. The installation (video, MDF, resin, urethane, pine wood, plywood, Aqua-Resin, pigment, spray paint and aluminum, dimensions variable, 2017-19) is a collection of objects that together manage to signify a living room, via a schematic of key pieces of furniture — a couch, a Christmas tree, a fireplace, etc.
In truth these pieces are convincing replicas of what started out as the contents of a dollhouse belonging to a friend of Upson’s. Through a wild olio of techniques, materials, and processes including but probably not limited to 3D-scanning, mold-making, digital milling, and painting, Upson enlarged the pieces to full size. In a pool of sweet spotlight, the generously lumpy red couch has a vulgar chromatic allure and a sensual odalisque comportment, even as its mottled, roughly textured and liberally stained surface both beckons and repulses the touch. There’s a giant body-mod ring casually tossed like a throw pillow or remote control on the cushions.
Nearby, across a shadowy ground, awash in its own halo of light, a curious conical shroud emerges. A rough and splattered skin like a painter’s drop cloth swaddles what is apparently the Christmas tree; it proved impossible to make a cast without a plastic wrapping and that shape is the ghostly, hooded ambiguity that resulted. Two more body-piercing rings adorn it like outsized Christmas ornaments, or the buckles of a straitjacket. It ought to be a comfort, but the tree instead offers a strangeness, a momentary disorientation, that brings the viewer back to the “here and now” of the reality of the materials, the artist’s craft, and the dimension not of memory, but of metaphor.
Having a luxury of space (compared to the broader context of the group exhibition and specific architectural setting of the Venice iteration) for these and other of the installation’s individual sculptural components, allows them to breathe and be fully considered as self-contained objects. This also elicits more meandering, meditative movement between and among them, even as the pensive, haunting atmosphere is amplified by the whole room being suffused with the speech and sounds of the installation’s video element — almost as though the artist were speaking from beyond the veil. The source of these voices is obscured at first, disembodied; you have to seek the videos out from behind a shallow three-sided constructed wall surrounding the cast fireplace. This act of following the voice enacts an awkward, charming, hide-and-seek sense of discovery, and for your curiosity you are treated to the source of the secrets, jokes, wigs, costumes, fantasies, and confessions of trauma.
The videos on the loop are Alex’s House (about 5.5 minutes), Clit Wisdom (about 2 minutes), Masquerade (about 3 minutes) — separate, but very much of a piece. They are filmed in a stage set that is a version of where one stands to watch — wood paneled walls with a fireplace cut-out; the red sofa makes several salient appearances in the videos, as the piercing ring does in the story. They feature two women (Upson and a partner) and a glitchy but fairly linear set of nested narratives — including an extensive, surreal but plausible inventory of “the house’s” contents, a dental episode, the deal with the clit ring, and where the tree came from. The heavily made-up and costumed, strongly affected speech, glitchy sound and video, and slightly terrifying mask of cheerfulness of the performances in the videos evokes diaristic reality television and a proper fever dream. This dollhouse is not really made for playtime.
Installed in proximity to this unlikely expanded domestic space, Upson’s Portrait (Vain German) (all works: Urethane, resin, Aqua-Resin, pigment, fiberglass and aluminum, 29 1/4 × 23 1/4 × 2 3/8 inches, 2020-21) are taken from the same series that’s appearing in the current Biennale. Ostensibly portraits, they are almost as unlike faces as it is possible to be while retaining claim to the genre. Their dissolute, engorged likeness have much more in common with abstractionist color and pattern fields, but this is not — or not only — the result of hand-of-the-artist painterliness, but of a similarly multi-layered set of process to those with which Upson created her dollhouse enlargements. From a miniature painting, 3D-scanned, enlarged and cast using a silicone mold, Upson then added one pigment layer at a time until the final work emerged from its own primordial soup.
There are a few of Upson’s large-scale drawings as well — a tad out of place in terms of their chaotic emotional tone, but supremely helpful if one goal of the exhibition is to illuminate more raw insight as to her thought process. Their wild, cumulative cacophony leaves no cognitive iota behind in these feats of scale and detail that form an inventory of her unchained thoughts not unlike the litany of strange belongings in the house on the other side of the wall.
Upstairs, a never-shown suite of new (2020-21) paintings on canvas breaks like the sunrise as you step into the room — so bright and full of life that it fairly takes your breath away. Swathes and strokes of hot watermelon, dusty sickly rose, peach, ash, flagging-tape blue, flaxen gold coalesce around shaky images of blond girls in braids, gingham cloth, and the general accouterments of farms, kitchens, and picnics. It’s hard to put a finger on where the sense of dread is coming from, so torch-bright and aggressively upbeat is the voice. These paintings share a tone of forced hilarity with the performances from the videos downstairs, a certain intentional intensity, like a send-up of trying too hard, that verges on unsettling, even amid the warm glow. That parallax point between beauty and terror is just one of the dualities Upson favored.
Furthering the certainty of symbolic specificity that underpins the beguiling chaos are sculptures and an accompanying video, Crocodile Mother (about 13 minutes, 2017), which explicate the prevalence of the gingham plaid motif. This pattern — both literal (used as cloth within pictorial imagery) and deconstructed (abstract armatures and repetitions) — appears in several of the paintings and again in a few figurative sculptures clad in jeans and plaid shirts as a reference to the artist’s mother. This is the identical outfit Upson wears in the video, as do the dozens of piled up dummies among whom she reclines, forming a peculiar, sentimental, quasi-narrative, unexpectedly moving, and only slightly ironic throughline between previous deployments of the same imagery and that so binds the newest paintings together.
In the video, she enacts a slow-moving stream of consciousness monologue in English and French which touches on memory, maternity, and madness before alighting on ideas about abstraction and meaning. Even though the paintings came later, this video has a ring of finality, a kind of searched-for resolution approaching closure — or at least a kind of making peace with unrest. It’s hard to know if that was closure that Upson needed then or that we need now; it’s probably both.