Vexed Autobiography in the Work of Kaari Upson

The artist’s first posthumous exhibition at Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles, defies easy assumptions about her work and life

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BY Jonathan Griffin in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 13 SEP 22

‘never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never’ is and is not a posthumous exhibition. Kaari Upson passed away only in August of last year; many of us are still coming to terms with her loss. But to think of this, her first solo show in Los Angeles in over a decade, only in the memorializing terms of the posthumous tribute is distracting, limiting and inaccurate. Comprising work produced between 2015 and 2021, it was planned, in part, by the artist herself, but was repeatedly pushed back due to the pandemic. It was Upson who came up with that exclamatory title.

A tortured image of a hazy and high-relief woman's face with a melancholy expression in purples, oranges, and blues
Kaari Upson, Portrait (Vain German), 2020–21, urethane, resin, Aqua-Resin, pigment, fiberglass and aluminium. 74.3 × 59.7 × 5.7 cm. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers; photograph: Ed Mumford

Pieces from her late series ‘Portrait (Vain German)’ (2020–21) – variously indistinct portraits in pigmented resin and urethane, cast from 3D-printed enlarged scans of miniature paintings – open the exhibition. When they appeared at the Venice Biennale this year, just months after Upson’s death from cancer, they seemed to document a descent into darkness, as if the artist was facing her own mortality. That interpretation is vexed, however, by the series’ title, which refers not to Upson but to her German-born mother. And when the series began at least, Upson was relatively well.

An image of a video screen depicted a deranged-looking woman above a life-sized replica of a fireplace
Kaari Upson, Kris’s Dollhouse (detail), 2017-19, site-specific installation, video, MDF, resin, urethane, pine wood, plywood, Aqua-Resin, pigment, spray paint and aluminum, dimensions variable. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Throughout her work, Upson deliberately confused autobiographical narratives, melding aspects of her identity with others’. For Kris’s Dollhouse (2017–19), she collaborated with Kris, a childhood friend who had a child around the same age as Upson’s daughter; Upson regarded Kris as a kind of spiritual twin. In videos shown inside a cast of the stone hearth from Kris’s Las Vegas tract home, the pair are crudely made up to resemble one another, parroting recordings of each other’s speech. Degraded copies were grist to Upson’s mill; nearby sits another part of Kris’s Dollhouse, a toy sofa digitally scanned and rematerialized at human scale. The clotted, blobby form, milled from MDF then painted red, is appended with giant clitoris rings. (We learn from a video Kris’s youthful reasons for getting one.)

Installation shot of gallery with white walls, a glass door to a verdant outside visible in the back, with large scale charcoal drawings, the words "FROM THE BACK END" in block text visible on the large drawing on the righthand side
Kaari Upson, 'never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Upson drew throughout her career, usually in graphite on large sheets of paper. Three examples are included here, the hugest of which (Untitled, 2015–21) accrued over many years. Her drawings, which collate textual notes, snatches of theory and jargon, maniacal inscriptions, diagrams and near-photorealist transpositions of other images, were clearly essential to Upson’s process, but to me they have always felt too prescriptive, too assiduously referent, like an A-grade art student’s sketchbook.

A painting of a stricken, blonde-haired woman with plaits, her face hatched with blue and red relief lines, against a blue gridded background
Kaari Upson, Untitled, 2020, acrylic, spray paint and oil on canvas, 61 × 61 cm. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers; photograph: Ed Mumford

By contrast, in the upstairs gallery, an untitled series of paintings begun during the pandemic reveal Upson in less didactic mode. Certain familiar motifs recur – the blonde woman with plaits, the red-and-blue-checked shirt fabric that Upson’s mother apparently wore – but by and large obvious narratives are absent. These paintings are thematically and formally exploratory, featuring masked and washed areas alongside soft-sprayed acrylic and oils imprinted from other paintings while still wet. The best of them are gorgeous, funny, lush and disturbing, all at the same time.

A sculpture of a facedown figure with an arched back, five hot pink coca-cola-esque shapes sticking out of the ridges of its back
Kaari Upson, Untitled, 2020–21, urethane, Crystal Clear resin, pigment, aluminum, 43.8 × 131.1 × 34.9 cm. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

Most hauntingly, two ambiguously gendered figures share the gallery, one face-down and another mounted face-first onto a column. Both Untitled (2020–1), these painted urethane sculptures both have yellow-blonde hair, blue jeans and red-and-blue-checked shirts. Who is this character? It looks like Upson in Crocodile Mother (2016), a video tucked behind a wall, in which she spews psychoanalytic theory and bad French while surrounded by identical soft mannequins. Upsettingly, the two child-sized sculptures have casts of vodka bottles plugged along their spines, the only sharply rendered parts of their otherwise amorphous bodies. In these sculptures, as with the nearby paintings, a subject is drifting from focus, but something else is emerging, something new and remarkable and yet to be resolved.

Kaari Upson's ‘never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never’ is on view at Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles, until 8 October 2022.

Main image: Kaari Upson, 'never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers; photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

 

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

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