KAARI UPSON: Good Thing You Are Not Aloneby Rabia Ashfaque
new museum | may 3 – september 10, 2017
The interlinked projects of Kaari Upson’s first major museum show in New York, Good Thing You Are Not Alone, methodologically explore various facets of an individual’s existence within both physical and phantasmagorical realms. Upson bears down on thorny issues pertaining to identity and self with multidimensional, almost forensic work, portraying sharp flares of self-realization amidst borderline-neurotic expositions. All the while, she builds a powerful narrative around volatile emotions and tenuous threads of connectivity between past and present, real and fictive, within and without.
Upson’s near-obsessive preoccupation with the ways in which objects gratify consumer needs is particularly anthropological. The sectional couch, a longstanding motif in Upson’s work, manifests in different ways. At this year’s Whitney Biennial, Upson exhibited contorted figures in an oxidized pink hue that mimicked grey, decaying skin simultaneously burning with the luminescence of afterlife. At her New Museum survey, the bulbous, vibrant, more painterly Who Is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue (2014) is both beautiful and grotesque. Its curvaceous, animate forms are derived from aging couches, pummeled into submission by the humans who occupied them, gravity and organic mutilation causing them to sag, appearing as flesh, if not for details like fine stitching and exposed cushion stuffing, which betray the synthetic materials. These pieces were originally imagined as therapeutic sculptures that could be sat upon, but took on lives of their own as Upson cast them in multitudes. Some casts were built into the following one so that the process of destruction and creation became bound in an endless loop.
Upson’s mother looms over each work, from the artist’s dreaded yet poignant memory of her satisfied sigh while drinking a Pepsi every day at 4pm, which inspired the MMDP (My Mother Drinks Pepsi) (2014–ongoing) series of seemingly fossilized Pepsi cans, to the uniform of plaid shirt and jeans that Upson wears while playing the protagonist in each of her video installations. One such work is In Search of the Perfect Double (2017), a confounding, paranoid version of the show House Hunters in which Upson visits over fifty tract house1 in a fixated search for perfectly mirrored houses in a Las Vegas community, only to discover that each inhabitant had left a “human stain,” as Upson calls it, that altered the houses in subtle and definitive ways. In the four-channel video installation Recluse Brown (2015–17), as well as in Desert Dead Mall (2017) and Crocodile Mother (2017), the same protagonist walks through Costco aisles packed with consumerist abundance, attempting to buy bulk in one place, sitting on a “throne” made of Pepsi cases in another. She appears to be invisible to all but the artist-daughter who, in her compulsive endeavor to create the image of an ideal mother—as seen in Hers (2017)—fills steel Costco shelves with over a hundred mannequins. Through this replication of her mother’s likeness, she attempts to perfect a model image, which, ironically, becomes all the more divisibly invisible in multitude.
The insistent presence of Upson’s past within her narratives operates as a cathartic attempt to reconcile with what is inextricably linked to her work and, in turn, to herself. In her drawings and cast sculptures of a fireplace from the tract house, one finds the same incessant need to perfect something through the act of mirroring or multiplying it, almost as if that replication can compel a thing or being to lose its imperfections or, at the very least, conceal the flaw within the perfect doubling. But along with Upson’s pathological desire to fix her surroundings comes an obsessive need to get down to some elusive, elementary truth by unpacking her own life’s conjunction to materialist culture. This is followed by a tentative recognition of the fact that the broken, imperfect someone you’ve been trying to save in fact saves you from being alone. And that the ideal you’ve been chasing holds neither the meaning, nor the worth, of that imperfect someone.
- Cookie-cutter houses that are part of a housing development.
Rabia Ashfaque is a widely published writer, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts in 2014.