Los Angeles

Kaari Upson

Hammer Museum

Remember the scene in David Fincher’s 1995 neo-noir Seven when detectives, played by Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, scavenge the hermetically sealed apartment of Kevin Spacey’s serial killer “John Doe”? The scariest moment arrives not when the two dicks find a neon cross over the bed, nor endless emptied pill bottles, nor even the gruesome severed hands of a victim, but when they uncover hundreds of notebooks, densely filled with psychotic scholarship. It’s the kind of image that finds lineage from the revelation of Norman Bates’s skeletal mother to the wall of stolen family photos in the Robin Williams pedophilia vehicle One Hour Photo (2002), and, most recently, in an exhibition by Kaari Upson in the Hammer Museum’s otherwise sterile lobby.

Whether Upson is an actual psycho or just playing make-believe remains to be seen, but her dense, wall- and floor-filling installation of labor-intensive, photorealistic drawings and diagrams, performance videos, oil paintings, blown-up-photos-of-little-paintings-copied-from-photographs, and file boxes and folders is genuinely unsettling—even if self-consciously so. Recalling both Sophie Calle and Paul McCarthy, the artist is the center of an ongoing drama (The Larry Project, 2005–) involving a real-life Ken-doll-cum-playboy. The artist’s investigation of “Larry,” made manifest in the fruits of a detective-style fact-finding mission (a video of Larry’s house on fire; artless assessor’s photos of the resulting ruins; a box containing files labeled “Yoga and Diet,” “Playboy Mansion,” “The Parties”) as well as those yielded through outright stalking and trespassing (two other files, pointedly labeled “His Crimes” and “My Crimes”), elevates a string of ethical and legal concerns regarding privacy and physical and psychological well-being. How far should an artist investigate—or violate—a subject for the sake of “performance”? Can the position of “artist” ever absolve one of criminal acts? Does it matter that he’s obviously a creep?

Chances are some of these questions will be answered in time. Meanwhile, it is clear that Upson is hoping that her sheer audacity and a post-post-feminist relativity, bolstered by assured skill in a variety of media, will keep the ethical issues at a purely hypothetical level. The objects on display, it should be noted, are ferociously engaging. In one video, Upson, wearing a gingham Playboy bunny getup and clear plastic jumpsuit, conflates psychologist and proctologist as she dissects surrogate Larry’s rectum, moderating the operation like a Robin Byrd–style talk show host. “You’re an asshole,” she repeats into a microphone. “We have to get rid of all that shit so that we can start a new reality.” It’s a dark but compelling show, owing to McCarthy’s ritualistic actions and Fatal Attraction all at once.

Most successfully, Upson presented three versions of a diptych featuring head-and-shoulder portraits of herself and Larry. Each pair of heavily impastoed panels has been smashed together, wet on wet, transferring aspects of the two individuals onto one another, generating a gloppy, unstable image of “self” and “other.” Like emblems of schizophrenia, the sheer affect of these “Kiss” paintings succeeds at first sight, without the convoluted backstory. There is something irreversible, irrevocable about the dark psychic “love” connection achieved with Larry, and with this body of work. The most significant question for Upson is how to move forward (or even away) from here—before Larry becomes a gimmick or has her served with an arrest warrant. Fortunately, the artist is well aware of the conundrum. In huge letters on one drawing, she writes: WHAT IS MY EXIT STRATEGY?

Michael Ned Holte