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In a 2017 conversation with Paul McCarthy, Kaari Upson disclosed the phrase that best encapsulates her fascination with the indeterminate, sometimes sickening facets of other people’s lives: “somebody else’s yuck.”1 Though cut short by the artist’s tragic death from cancer in 2021, Upson’s career was built around her power to “[witness] somebody else’s nothingness” and to fill it—through research, self-reflection, and imagination.2 Her recent exhibition never, never ever, never in my life, never in all my born days, never in all my life, never revealed that, for Upson, the “yuck” is precisely where the most perplexing and generative aspects of identity reside. The exhibition’s paintings, drawings, videos, sculptures, and installation—all completed in the final years of her life—foreground Upson’s conception that the self is not a stable, fixed entity, but is rather found in the non-matter that exists on the abject borderline between states, between individuals, between what is felt and what is articulated, and ultimately, between life and death.
Upson is best known for The Larry Project (2005–12), a seven-year-long project that reconstructed the life of an eccentric and menacing missing neighbor of Upson’s parents through his abandoned belongings. Through her work, Upson began to incorporate some of Larry into her sense of self, her memories fusing with the conception of her subject. Though Upson moved away from this project in 2012, her predilection for blurring others’ experiences with her own persisted. The life-sized installation Kris’s Dollhouse (2017–19), included in the recent Sprüth Magers show, is based on a dollhouse made by a friend’s mother. Dollhouses typically tickle a maternal desire to recreate the well-known security of the home as a space for pleasant reverie. But in Upson’s macabre enlargement of the object, the fireplace is burnt out and the walls are the splotchy gray of a cirrhotic liver.
The installation, moreover, served as a set for a series of perverse videos. In Alex’s House (2019), Upson and Kristina (Kris) Perchetti, her friend and collaborator, shuffle around the netherworldly dollhouse dressed like bloodied, dirtied caricatures of housewives. Down and out, with eyes wide shut and eyeballs painted on their closed eyelids, Upson halfheartedly moves objects around the space as she describes a certain “plain tract home” in Las Vegas (which also belonged to Kris). In other shots, they limp in tandem around the space, echoing phrases as if possessed, seeming to speak without meaning as they recite banal details of Kris’ life. The characters’ outfits, their bizarre movements, and their overlapping dialogue suggest a more sinister experience of the home than what can be expressed through speech—one that is now shared between multiple people. Despite the video’s deeply unsettling atmosphere, Upson retains the amusement of playing pretend, as the characters’ bodies and their corresponding environment are turned into vehicles for a disturbing performance—freighted, perhaps, with trauma, but buoyed by humor.
Language functions like a kind of game in Upson’s text-based paintings, doing more to impart the deep obscurity of the self than to offer declarative truths about it. The exhibition featured a series of monumental black-and-white drawings that dwarfed viewers in dense clouds of text. Having functioned like notepads for the artist, the works form concrete poetic ruminations on what it means, philosophically and experientially, to inhabit a body and mind. “WANT TO BE GOD?” Upson writes in bubble letters that resemble a large intestine. Though the self, for Upson, was ultimately unknowable, its mystery elicited from her a powerful drive to signify or represent it, however incompletely. The products of this drive, most clearly visible in the fragments of language in her drawings, evoke what I might call the conspiratorial sublime: the conflicting feelings of horror and wonder that arise from the endless ways one might try to pin down an ultimately unanswerable question. “WHAT OVERIDENTIFICATION WITH INCONGRUOUS FANTASY” she scrawls elsewhere, pointing to the narrative excesses and incoherencies that arise when trying to understand oneself—but which never resolve into a totalizing concept or truth.
For Upson, there never really was a core self to divulge. Instead, her investigations of the grime and grit of interiority opened up the mechanisms for how identification might function in a more protean, diffuse manner. In a series of wall reliefs made with urethane, resin, and other materials, all titled (Portrait) Vain German (2020–21), faces emerge from the works’ bruised surfaces like death masks. A contemporary colloquialism teaches us that to “unmask” someone is to reveal the truth about a person. But the mask is also an avatar of the self that touches both what is within and what is without, an instrument that annuls the lines dividing the living and the dead, the visible and the obscene. Upson understood that in these capacities, the mask might act as an interloper in the borderlands, comprising the obscure landscape of one’s own “yuck.”
This review was originally published in Carla issue 30.