LOS ANGELES — “Female purity.” “In memory but in waste.” “Delirium.” “Dissipative structures.” These words tower over the viewer in Los Angeles artist Kaari Upson’s 17-foot-long untitled graphite and ink drawing on paper, 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 passed away in New York in August 2021 after a long struggle with cancer, left behind a prolific body of work that sits between anguish and creativity, and the transformation of beauty into disgust. never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never, on view at Sprüth Magers gallery through October 8, is a selection of her final works along with 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 the space, and portraits of blond beauty metamorphose into odd protrusions from a canvas.
“In a lot of my schooling, I dealt with questions of the abject,” Upson noted in Even magazine. “When something is outside the body it becomes disgusting, but when it’s inside it’s as natural as blood. Those issues are very ingrained in me.”
Near the graphite piece, works from her Portrait (Vain German) series line a wall. The portraits emerge from the canvas as if the insides of the subject’s mind and body are turned inside out. The sculptural paintings (all produced 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 happenstance — result in ghostly figures that protrude from the canvas. Some of them form recognizable faces, while others appear more abstract, obscuring the portraiture.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is “Kris’s Dollhouse,” a site-specific installation in which Upson scanned and enlarged an actual dollhouse owned by her friend Kris, transforming the innocence of a childhood toy into something of a horror set. “Dollhouse,” first exhibited at the 2019 Venice Biennale, includes the video “Alex’s House,” featuring Upson and Kris dressed to resemble each other. Permanently opened eyes painted on their eyelids contribute to the installation’s surreal quality. They discuss a track home in Las Vegas (“it’s a two story”) like home buyers while stumbling along together in a derelict space. Home, for Upson, represents not comfort but conformity, where one must reframe one’s identity to fit the societal mold of the single-family house. At scale, this becomes a source of suburban banality and pressure, a point that’s underscored in The Larry Project, perhaps the work for which she is best known.
Tucked away in the back of the upstairs gallery is “Crocodile Mother,” a video of Upson dressed in flannel and overalls amid a pile of mannequins and dolls in the same clothing. The dolls come from her installation Hers (which reads as both plural and possessive), made from synthetic hair, cat hair, debris, and duct tape.
Home, the body, dolls, and motherhood all come into view as she gazes off-camera blankly: “About children,” she says in a near monotone, discussing crocodile mothers, “it is said that the mother cannot catch their eye. They are not at all in a relationship. They flee the mother because they are merged with the mother.”
“And what does the father embody?” she continues. “This is difficult. He has access to abstraction, access to the distance, access one has to speak when one is no longer glued.”
Amid dolls dressed like her and cast aside into a pile, Upson appears to draw out the abjection that can accompany the physical and emotional entanglements of motherhood, in contrast to the presumed distance of fatherhood. Upson’s art reminds us that the effort to challenge these binaries can be a way to move past polarized gender roles, and all the restrictive roles that come with United States suburbia’s idealistic illusions.
never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never continues at Sprüth Magers (5900 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through October 8. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.