The wide-ranging practice of Kaari Upson (1970-2021), encompassing sculpture, installation, drawing, painting, performance and video, explored the cause and effect of psychological trauma, both personal and collective, to create what Lisa Philips has described as ‘open-ended, circuitous narratives that weave elements of fantasy, physical and psychological trauma’.
Growing up in West coast America where wildfires, earthquakes and crime were a constant threat, Upson mined the anticipation of imminent catastrophe, and its aftermath, in works with unsettling acuity. Drawing on psychoanalytic discourse of the 20th century, she explored her past by using objects from her personal environment – such as discarded sofas or mattresses, Pepsi cans, a knitted blanket or a childhood memento. By transforming them through a process of moulding or casting, the sculptures are imbued with a sense of the uncanny – unheimlich – while equally being abstract forms that belie their origin. The dark side of suburbia and the deficiency of the American dream are recurring motifs, along with explorations of self and other, public and private, desire and repulsion, all understood as inherently fluid concepts.
In her large-scale drawings, which act as a form of mental mapping, text and image are entwined to form virtuosic compositions. The intricate and deeply personal drawings function as an intuitive call and response, they appear open-ended, like a temporary window into a constantly shifting imagination.
In her video works, Upson often appears as protagonist, performing a variety of roles – mother, best friend or alter ego – with face paint and crude prosthetics that confer a macabre atmosphere. Later works filmed in both real and fictive spaces featured overlapping narratives, each echoing, mirroring and doubling to create a world where, in the words of curator Elena Filopovic, ‘subjectivity […] is, quite simply, multiple and unstable.’
Kaari Upson was born in 1970 in San Bernadino, California and died in 2021 in New York. She exhibited extensively including solo exhibitions at Kunstverein Hannover (2019); Kunsthalle Basel (2019); and New Museum (2017). Upson participated in numerous group exhibitions including the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Whitney Biennial, New York (2017); 15th Istanbul Biennial (2017).