New York

Kaari Upson


“I am bound to have some anxiety about this so please if I say stop, don’t stop.” The run-on title of Kaari Upson’s recent show at Maccarone served as fair warning of the quality and quantity of neurosis concentrated therein, while the gallery’s statement detailed its convoluted narrative so thoroughly that there seemed at first precious little room for imaginative maneuver. “There is a man at the center of a story,” it began. “He is a character created from real information and forensic methods traced and described by a narrator, a woman, who is a persona of a self, playing the role of his obsessed lover in a self-reflexive fantasy.” And so it went on, relating and analyzing the artist’s tortured account of desire and projection.

What one saw first on entering the gallery was a wall scrawled energetically with black charcoal, and what looked like disembodied limbs and other parts cast in the same material scattered on the floor in front of it. A glance around one corner revealed that this installation resumed along a narrow passage behind the main space, toward the back of which lay the intertwined, decapitated forms of two cast-charcoal figures. Lining the walls were a series of large rectangular panels on which smoke had left dirty gray clouds. Some of the shapes were densely opaque, others diffuse; all were amorphous. Yet what might in isolation have suggested an exercise in informe abstraction was—albeit one with some distracting corporeal embellishments—only this story’s opening chapter.

A modified print in the corridor between north and south galleries, Untitled (Larry Aura), 2009, hinted at still murkier waters to come via the depiction of an isolated figure silhouetted against a candy-colored haze. In the room itself lurked The Grotto, 2008–2009, a large Flintstones-like structure, lit with candles, which houses not Fred and family but a number of video projections, all of which ramble and rant away simultaneously. Visible only through chinks in the guano-splattered faux-stone structure, these distinctly queasy vignettes provide glimpses into the private world of an arguably unhinged—or at the very least wholly unreliable—female protagonist. In her private lair, the unnamed woman is engaged in the literal construction of a twin or shadow of herself, a libidinal surrogate integrated into a fractured personal mythology.

Individual videos incorporate speeches that range from self-berating monologues (“No one wants to be around someone who hurts themselves because that means they could hurt you”) to anguished exchanges (“Why the fuck did this happen? Why are we so unhappy?”) to something resembling a sexual encounter. The protagonist wears cast-rubber breasts, accentuating her femininity even as she sometimes seems to also take on the role of the man in a hyperscrutinized “relationship” (or, if one is to believe the press statement, “the woman uses the tropes of male fantasies to destroy the erotic narrative that one would expect in this womblike space of distortion”). The style in which these scenarios is acted out ranges from highly mannered to almost naturalistic, but none is an easy watch or listen.

Spread across the wall behind The Grotto were more painted-over prints in the style of Untitled (Larry Aura), all also depicting figures— mostly amorous couples—observed through richly tinted miasmas. But while the imagery of the works on paper is often hard to make out, their thematic correspondence with the installation is clear enough. And although the smoke and charcoal works are visually distinct from both, their role in Upson’s obsessive take on the debased male gaze assumed a sharper focus—or at least seemed to adopt a more interestingly complex role—the longer one looked. An exhibition with a plot is always a worrisome thing, but Upson here positioned the elements of her tale such that they finally assumed the air not of a fragmentary sequence but of an unbroken—if uneasy—dream.

Michael Wilson