Kaari Upson

by Jonathan Griffin

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

‘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.

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.

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.)

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.

Kaari Upson, Untitled, 2020, Mixed media on canvas. 152.4 × 152.4 cm. Courtesy: © The Art Trust created under Kaari Upson Trust and Sprüth Magers

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.

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.

First published: Frieze, 13 September 2022