PRINT October 2021


KAARI UPSON (1970–2021)

Kaari Upson, San Bernardino, CA, 2016. Photo: Michael Benevento.

I DON’T KNOW if Kaari Upson believed in an afterlife—I never thought to ask—but I know she believed in doubled selves, twinned spaces, and the cosmic undersides they might promise, the profusion of near, almost realities. I know that for Kaari every house had its dream equivalent, a swimming reflection. Kaari loved tract houses, their audacious, abundant banality; I would go so far as to say that she operated under a tract-house theory of the universe. Our earthly realm might be a single house in a long line of houses, rows of identical building plans, identical rooms filled with nothing but inevitable variance. She was irreverent toward specificity and dismissive of boundaries, and in that she offered the more tangled, terrifying hope of endlessness. Every star a suburb. Every body a room. Everyone has a twin sister, even if it’s their mother. Even if it’s a stranger.

In 2016, shortly after my twenty-fourth birthday, Kaari hired me to work alongside the amazing team in her studio. I had no technical production skills and no administrative ones either. But I had survived cancer as a teenager and was therefore fluent in hospitalspeak and comfortable with chaotic personalities. I wasn’t frightened by frank desire and/or mortality. I had read some Lacan, loosely. These were all important qualifications to Kaari. I think eventually my role was described as “studio archivist,” which roughly translated to coconspirator, mood stabilizer, and functional intermediary between memory and longing. Fun is such a pathetic pebble of a word to describe something so gorgeous and vast, but there’s no appropriate replacement: Working at Kaari’s was fun. Kaari was fun. I do not trust people who talk about friendship in the workplace, friendships with bosses especially, but Kaari’s studio was a hub of urgent intimacy that upended everything I had believed about jobs and work.

All her ideas were alive and held her aliveness within them. They still do.

Part of this is because Kaari worked more than anyone I’ve ever met—she spent every day, all day at the studio and had another, smaller studio in her house in case she wanted to draw in the middle of the night—but she worked with a crackling joy and antsy determination that rarely endure the transition to adulthood. She was more spontaneous than she was disciplined, and she was very, very disciplined. Another part of it was that she had recently been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. It seemed like the more critical her health, the bigger her plans for the work became. Kaari had so much she wanted to make, and so little time, and so we hurried, every artwork scraping the peeling edge of an unpromised future. Every idea called dibs on Kaari continuing to exist. All her ideas were alive and held her aliveness within them. They still do.

The Larry Project, begun in 2005, is a Southern California epic and set the scale for all her work: Kaari thought in decades and square miles, not seasons or white cubes. This is an artwork that begins, like all good Greek tragedies, in its own ruins: the smoke-stained hollows of a torched, foreclosed McMansion facing her parent’s home in San Bernardino. Trespassing, as was her style, Kaari stole a box of papers and photographs that belonged to the absent owner, the spectral, hypermasculine “Larry,” and the material became the gravitational center of an entire psychic universe. It is her Gesamtkunstwerk, refracting the dimming light of a distant stranger into every possible slant, glow, and blaze. Larry was a huge fan of Playboy and Hugh Hefner, pursuing an easy ’80s masculinity, cavernous architecture, sex with identical twins; through the project, he is a blueprint, an Idiot’s Guide to American manhood, a projection and a void. Kaari honored Larry’s (perceived) desires by adopting them herself, becoming them, cracking them open, wrapping them in a dripping web of scavenged psychoanalytic theory. If there is a key to the elaborate mythology of Kaari’s work, it is a house on fire and two blondes with the same face staring at each other, mouths seconds away from a kiss.

Kaari Upson, Internal Pocket, 2011, latex, acrylic, 118 × 120 × 9".

Kaari is often described, without condescension, as a girl version of Paul McCarthy, someone she really admired, or a Californian Sophie Calle—if Calle shopped at Costco. But when I try to contextualize Kaari’s work, I think of Nabokov: a dense mapping of alienation and sexuality buried deep in verdant reference, ironic scintillation, knee-jerk beauty. I think of Warhol: American death drives caught on a loop, the ordinary household object isolated and transformed, the very real copy, the pleasures of repetition. But Kaari had an extraordinary ability to step outside of comparison and contextualize herself through her own extensive, theoretical world building. She was always standing in the ruins of her last work, turning over the soil, tasting the ash, digging further.

So much of Kaari’s thinking was about folds and pockets, insides turning outside, outsides in. Walls glisten and dissolve. She discovered ways to cast the holes in things and pull them out into objecthood, crumpled hollows. The inside of buckets, the skin of a fireplace, obverse dollhouses, imaginary lovers. Absence was at hand, able to be touched, held, dragged, kissed. She sparked against the flint of lack, fearless. I can only hope that we might do the same, missing her.

Audrey Wollen is a writer based in New York.