BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 01 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 145

Life Study

The story of Los Angeles-based artist Kaari Upson’s long-term ‘Larry Project’

BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 01 FEB 12

Kaari Upson admits she’s told this story so many times, in so many different ways, that it’s become hard to get it straight any more. Her changing recollection of events has now superseded hard truth. Journalists and critics, falling over themselves to retell the incredible tale, also invariably bungle their facts, and so further pollute her memories. She’ll do her best though. Here goes. 

She first set foot inside the house in 2003. Upson was an undergraduate at CalArts, and she had returned to her parents’ home at the northernmost edge of San Bernardino, 100 kilometres inland from Los Angeles, after some years away. She’d heard about the owner of the large ‘McMansion’ opposite, but had never met him. The other residents – most, like Upson’s parents, who having moved there in search of space and privacy – resented his incursion into their lives. He threw ticketed parties that clogged the street with cars and ran late into the night. People reported hearing gunshots. 

Four Corners, 2011–ongoing, performance documentation, Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, 2011. All images courtesy Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles

The other local menace was the land-scape. Wildfires from the dry mountains periodically swept down as far as the edge of town. One house even blew down in a gale. Homes were sometimes rebuilt several times, until their owners ran out of money. Property values had plummeted.

Since so many of the buildings in the neighbourhood were derelict, the teenage Upson became a serial trespasser. So, in 2003, entering the house didn’t seem unusual. She’d been told the man was in jail and the property had been foreclosed by the bank. The young art student couldn’t believe what she found inside. A life’s worth of letters, legal documents, photographs and diaries were piled into boxes, inexplicably abandoned. When she took them out of the house, Upson didn’t kid herself that she was rescuing them, believing instead that she might ‘get something on him’ through her analysis of this material.¹ Information, as Upson well knows, is power, and understanding can be a means of control.

She carried two of the diaries around for a year or so, though she didn’t yet know what to do with them. Upson saw herself as a painter, and hoped to somehow incorporate them into a painting project. Then she misplaced one of the journals. It was never found. In the same month, a fire destroyed the house. Upson felt she’d lost everything. That’s when her project really took off: she started to fill in the gaps, using what little information she had to shade in the identity of this man she’d only heard about. Upson realized that the gaps were important; these informational negative spaces would come to shape her project.

Cut to eight years later. Upson is inside a two-and-a-half-metre plywood cube, dressed in tennis gear, violently scraping a hard, black, thigh-shaped object across the floor. Other hunks of black material are scattered around her, and the white interior of the box is scarred with repeated marks. Viewers of Four Corners (2011–ongoing) could hear Upson, but could only glimpse her through a tiny peephole. The black debris that sometimes flew out – charcoal mixed with a wax binder – had once been a cast mannequin of ‘Larry’, the man from across the street. By abrading him against the floor and the walls, Upson is gradually returning his body to dust, hoping to rid herself of the man who, in ‘The Larry Project’ (2005–ongoing), has dwelled at the centre of her work for the past seven years. 

Four Corners, 2011–ongoing, performance documentation, Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, 2011

His name’s not really Larry. For legal reasons, she’s not allowed to reveal his true identity, nor his previous addresses, his current whereabouts (he’s now out of prison), his age, nor any of the other intimate biographical details that Upson garnered from the rescued documents and from her subsequent investigations. ‘It’s easy to find information about someone,’ she says. But the project wasn’t about retribution or exposure, and, legality aside, Upson wasn’t about to share these details. He was hers alone. In her video As Long as it Takes – Part 1: The Head (2007), she relates almost everything she knows about the man, but edits out every factual word that might enable a positive identification.

Despite the trove of information she had about Larry, Upson realized she was no closer to really knowing him. Not only that, but in her eagerness to flesh out his profile, she was actually projecting aspects of her own life onto his. For instance, she caught herself conflating Larry with the actor Robby Benson, on whom she’d had a crush as a girl. In one painting, she accidentally gave Larry blue eyes, when in fact his birth certificate stated his eyes were brown. Her own father, she realized, had blue eyes. The paintings in the series ‘Kiss’ (2007–08) were an uncharacteristically literalist expression of Upson’s merging of their two identities; while the paint was still wet, she pressed together portraits of herself and of Larry, creating melting, indeterminate twins.

The Rorschach inkblot – that icon of psychological projection – cannot, at this time, have been far from her mind. Neither were the concepts of (mainly Freudian and Lacanian) psychoanalysis that had influenced her during her studies at CalArts. Desire for the Other; the self-construction of identity; the misrecognized self; the looking-glass self; the mirror stage; self-splitting; the shadow: all these ideas seemed to lead back to her conflicted, quasi-erotic infatuation with Larry. Yet, why him? His journals betrayed him as the kind of misogynist that Upson would normally find repellent. Not only did he style himself on Hugh Hefner, but he actually knew ‘Hef’ and attended parties and tennis tournaments at the Playboy Mansion. Photographs – some apparently commissioned from a professional photographer – showed him imitating his hero in a cheap robe, posing beside his car or clutching women wearing bikinis and tight smiles.

But, as Upson reveals in the video As Long as it Takes – Part 1: The Head, Larry was a troubled, vulnerable soul. ‘He thought that women only liked him for his money, his success, and so he felt trapped by it […] He described himself as “the white knight”. That implied that he was a victim of growing up with movies that said that men needed to be powerful and women needed saving.’ Larry’s diaries comprise screeds of introspection and self-analysis. He felt that his father never gave him unconditional love, and that made him feel like less of a man. He engaged in diverse courses of self-improvement: Jungian analysis, chakra cleansing, Shadow Work, Gestalt therapy and even est (Erhard Seminars Training) – the form of intensive group self-realization therapy that originated in California in the 1970s. 

While recounting this information to the video camera, Upson, in nurse’s whites and a gingham face-mask, is straddling a life-sized fabric mannequin of a black-haired man whom we assume to be Larry. Eventually, after protracted wrangling, she manages to tear Larry’s head from his body, the skin from his skull, and, still talking, pulls his face over her own head. ‘Everything I know about [silence – the video has been redacted] is …’, she says, and then the film ends, and loops back to the beginning.

Mirrored, 2011, pastel on paper, 1.9 x 1.1 m

‘I am more him than he is’ concludes an untitled pencil drawing from 2007. Upson has occasionally exhibited walls of drawings crammed with notes, phrases, diagrams and copies of photographs that, frankly, play right into the hands of anyone suggesting that ‘The Larry Project’ could only have been made by a damaged, hysterical and obsessive personality. In fact, Upson strives to separate herself from the woman who appears in her work – hence the masks that cover her face in almost every video or photograph. She is pleased when friends say they do not recognize her. But, in equal measure, it is vital that she herself is the subject – both physical and psychic – of her art. The Jungian therapy that she received (over the phone, for an as-yet-untitled, unexhibited video) was genuine, and when, between sessions, she dreamt of killing a girl called Chrissy whom she had known at school, Chrissy (Upson’s ‘shadow’, in Jungian terms) entered Upson’s work as an alter ego.

In 2008–09 she made The Grotto, a fibreglass replica of the legendary libidinal pleasure zone from the Playboy Mansion. Though it is impossible to physically enter, viewers can watch videos projected inside through gaps in its walls. In these, Upson appears naked, although her fulsome breasts and perfectly hairless genitalia can actually be seen to be silicone appendages; her long blonde hair too is a wig. She is assuming the attributes of Hefner’s feminine ideal while herself becoming physically fractured. The doubling of her body – split between its real form and its constructed form – cannot help but peel apart at its shrivelling silicone seams.

Upson says that she enters stereotypical roles as a matter of necessity, as a way of coming at her subjects from dead centre, inhabiting them in order to understand them (and hopefully ‘get something on them’, as she said of Larry). ‘These are subject positions that I grew up with and they are who I am.’ She has received harsh criticism from those who identify themselves as feminists. Upson herself struggles with that categorization, though she regrets the lack of an alternative. (If you’re not a feminist, what are you?) The problem, perhaps, is that feminism relies too heavily, for Upson, on an antithetical relationship between the self and the Other. In her video Actualization/The Ass (2007), as she rubs Vaseline into the Larry doll’s legs, she tells him: ‘Trying to change a thing leads to persistence of that thing. The only way you’re going to eliminate anything is to observe, to find out what it is, and where it is. The complete experiencing of that thing, being totally with it, leads to disappearing.’

Disappearance, rather than exposure, has been an abiding theme of ‘The Larry Project’ over the past three years. In 2009, Upson made her first charcoal casts of the mannequin, partly in reference to the fire that reduced his palatial home to ashes. Untitled (2009) consisted of two partially dismembered figures – one wearing Upson’s prosthetic breasts and vagina over the top of a prosthetic penis – in a jumbled, defeated mess on the floor. In the same exhibition, at Maccarone Gallery, New York, she ground parts of another charcoal figure against a long wall to create a dense black, chest-high cloud. Though charcoal might be a crumbly substance, it is also stubbornly hard to erase.

Perhaps in acknowledgement of this persistence (both physical and thematic), Upson has produced a series of wall-mounted charcoal and wax tablets that, though smooth and hard, are variously crumpled and dented. Some bear the impressions of the repetitive, purging motions that she performed in Four Corners; others, such as Charcoal Table 16 (Body Drag) (2011), were creased by the pressure of Larry’s body pushing against their warm, still-pliable forms. 

Doubled and Divided, 2011, graphite on paper, 1.5 x 1.8 m

Upson enjoys the formal tension between dry and wet – and its bodily innuendos. Just as dusty as the charcoal works are her pastel drawings. Through her own elective self-doubling she came to reflect on the male fantasy perpetuated by Hefner of a sexual encounter involving twin sisters. She made drawings of sisters from porn films, and then flooded them with liquids such as baby oil and bleach, half-losing the subjects beneath swirling pools of colour. She saw them as pictorial Petri dishes; they also resembled the ‘aura photographs’ that she’d had taken of herself and her doll such as Aura Document (2008). (‘A complete fake,’ she concluded when she examined the customized camera she bought for the purpose.)

In contrast to the dryness of pastel or charcoal dust, Upson’s latex sculptures seem to retain their wetness even after they have cured. The tone of pink that she chooses in Balcony or Double Chandelier (both 2011) evokes not human skin but rather the uncanny, not-quite-flesh colour used for prosthetic limbs and sex dolls. In these sculptures, the artist casts architectural features corresponding to those she once photographed in Larry’s home – and which have now burnt to cinders. The hardness of architecture succumbs to the same laws as the defeated human body, collapsing and folding in on itself. In Mirrored Staircase Inversion (San Bernardino) (2011–ongoing), Upson returned to the site of Larry’s former home and dug into the ground replicas of the twin staircases that had once led from the entrance hall to his bedroom. She then poured in gallons of pink latex, and dragged the resultant skin back to her studio, where it now rests, sagging on wooden armatures, awaiting an uncertain future.

‘The Larry Project’ may, for the moment, refuse to die, but Upson is nevertheless looking forward to a life without Larry. She is researching her next project, based on computer researcher Gordon Bell’s inno­vation of Lifelogging – the process of capturing and digitally storing every possible aspect of one’s life, from paper documents to momentary changes in mood. Bell has expressed frustration at his equipment’s inadequacy in recording his experiences, and continues to refine his methods. It is noteworthy that what this subject seems to share with ‘The Larry Project’ is not a sense of the grotesque, nor anger at the persistence of outmoded gender roles, nor scepticism towards the entrenched positions of psychoanalysis. It is Upson’s wonder at the unknowability of human experience, at the fragility of memory, at how the mess of our inner lives is short-changed by representational language. As Upson put it in the title of a photograph from 2007, It’s Never Enough

1 All quotations taken from conversations with the artist, December 2011

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