Home Miniature house For Kaari Upson, the abject and the grotesque were a source of inspiration

For Kaari Upson, the abject and the grotesque were a source of inspiration

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LOS ANGELES – “Feminine Purity.” “In memory but in waste.” “Delirium.” “Dissipative structures.” These words dominate the viewer in Los Angeles artist Kaari Upson’s 17-foot-long untitled graphite-and-ink drawing, created between 2015 and 2021. To see it is to absorb the full intensity of the artist’s explorations of trauma, vulnerability and abjection.

Upson, who died in New York in August 2021 after a long fight against cancer, leaves behind him a prolific work between anguish and creativity, and transformation of beauty into disgust. never, never never, never in my life, never in all my days of birth, never in all my life, never, on view at Sprüth Magers Gallery until October 8, is a selection of his final works as well as earlier pieces that have never been exhibited. Through her work, a quaint dollhouse becomes grotesquely oversized and overshadowed by Upson, who plays a living doll wearing garish makeup in space, and portraits of blonde beauty morph into eerie protrusions from a canvas.

“Much of my schooling I dealt with abject matters,” Upson noted in Same magazine. “When something is outside the body it becomes disgusting, but when it is inside it is as natural as blood. These issues are deeply rooted in me.

Installation view of Kaari Upson: never, never, never in my life, never in all my days of birth, never in all my life, never at Spruth Magers, Los Angeles. Left: “Untitled” (2020), mixed media on canvas, 60 x 60 inches; right: “Untitled” (2020), mixed media on canvas, 60 x 60 inches

Near the graphite piece, works of it Portrait (German vain) serial line a wall. The portraits emerge from the canvas as if the innards of the subject’s mind and body have been turned inside out. The sculptural paintings (all made during the social isolation of 2020 and 2021) were made from silicone molds and Aqua-Resin; the molds themselves were based on miniature paintings that she 3D scanned and enlarged. These layers – the digital and the human, the planned and the random – give rise to ghostly figures that protrude from the canvas. Some of them form recognizable faces, while others appear more abstract, obscuring the portrait.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is “Kris’s Dollhouse,” a site-specific installation in which Upson has scanned and enlarged an actual dollhouse belonging to his friend Kris, turning the innocence of a childhood toy into something of a horror setting. “Dollhouse,” which premiered at the 2019 Venice Biennale, includes the “Alex’s House” video, featuring Upson and Kris dressed to look alike. Permanently open eyes painted on their lids contribute to the surreal character of the installation. They discuss a Las Vegas runway house (“it’s a two-story house”) like home buyers while stumbling through an abandoned space together. Home, for Upson, does not represent comfort but conformity, where one must reframe one’s identity to fit the societal mold of the single-family home. On a large scale, this becomes a source of suburban banality and pressure, a point that is emphasized in The Larry Projectperhaps the work for which she is best known.

Installation view of Kaari Upson: never, never, never in my life, never in all my days of birth, never in all my life, never at Spruth Magers, Los Angeles. Foreground: “Portrait (Vain German)” (2020-21), urethane, resin, Aqua-Resin, pigment, fiberglass and aluminum, 29 1/4 x 23 1/2 x 2 1/4 inches

Tucked away in the back of the upstairs gallery is “Crocodile Mother,” a video of Upson dressed in flannel and overalls amidst a pile of mannequins and dolls wearing the same clothes. The dolls come from his facility Hers (which reads both plural and possessive), made from synthetic hair, cat hair, debris and tape.

The house, the body, the dolls and the motherhood all appear as she looks off camera: “About the children,” she says in an almost monotonous tone, referring to the crocodile mothers, “they say the mother can’t get their attention. They are not a couple at all. They run away from the mother because they merge with the mother.

“And what does the father represent? She keeps. “It’s difficult. He has access to abstraction, access to distance, access to speech when you are no longer glued.

Amidst dolls dressed like her and pushed aside in a heap, Upson seems to bring out the abjection that can accompany the physical and emotional entanglements of motherhood, contrasted with the presumed distance of fatherhood. Upson’s art reminds us that the effort to question these binaries can be a way to overcome polarized gender roles and all the restrictive roles that come with idealistic illusions of suburban America.

Kaari Upson, “AFTER (Little Smokey)” (2017–18), graphite and ink on paper, 99 x 51 1/2 inches
Installation view of Kaari Upson: never, never, never in my life, never in all my days of birth, never in all my life, never at Sprüth Magers, Los Angeles. Foreground:
“Untitled” (2020–21), urethane, Crystal Clear resin, pigment, aluminum, 15 x 54 x 19 inches
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, variable dimensions
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, variable dimensions
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, variable dimensions
Kaari Upson, “Crocodile Mother” (2016), video, color, with sound 12:45 minutes, edition 2 of 3 + 2 AP

never, never never, never in my life, never in all my days of birth, never in all my life, never continues at Sprüth Magers (5900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA) through October 8. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.