Los Angeles

Kaari Upson, Untitled, 2020–21, acrylic, spray paint, and oil on canvas, 56 × 50".

Kaari Upson, Untitled, 2020–21, acrylic, spray paint, and oil on canvas, 56 × 50".

Kaari Upson

Untitled, 2020–21, a canvas by the late Kaari Upson (1970–2021), depicts a huddled mass of frenetic, layered brushstrokes heaped atop a red-gingham-covered picnic table. Looking closely at the swarming field of rainbow-hued marks, a viewer gradually made out various Upson symbols: yellow braided hair, a plaid shirt, a dismembered limb—emblems that also flicker across the other twenty-one paintings and pair of sculptures on view in the gallery’s upstairs space. This body of work, made during the pandemic, examined psychoanalytic themes familiar from the artist’s oeuvre: twinning and repetition, female archetypes, and the relationship Upson had with her mother, Karin. Poignantly, the artist began creating this show in the last few months of her mother’s life. Upson herself died a year later, making these her final pieces. This presentation, the first exhibition of Upson’s art in the United States since her death, also included, in Sprüth Magers’s downstairs gallery, her projects for the 2019 and 2022 Venice Biennales.

Upson’s relationship with her mother had been one of the central preoccupations of her art during the final years of her life. Her 2017 show at the New Museum in Manhattan included a video in which she dressed in Karin’s signature outfit—blue jeans and a plaid shirt—while roaming the aisles of Costco, as well as a large installation of big-box-store shelves stacked with mannequinlike sculptures wearing Karin’s ensemble. In an exhibition at Sprüth Magers in Berlin that closed the same year as the New Museum outing, Upson printed her mother’s previously unpublished memoir in the accompanying catalogue. The artist’s work featuring Karin is deeply personal but also overlaps with her interest in symbols of static femininity. The 2016 video Crocodile Mother, on view here, draws on Jacques Lacan’s comparison of the maternal figure to the titular reptile, who suffocatingly traps its young in her jaws. In this piece, Upson is yet again dressed as Karin, reclining in a vast field of the mother/artist’s sculptural doubles. Drawing on psychoanalytic tropes even as she scrutinizes them, Upson’s exploration of her own history and traumas is refracted through complex allegorical systems.

The questions that drove Upson’s artmaking are also fundamental to psychoanalytic theory: How does one become an “I”? How does the self relate to the other? Per Freud, the boy becomes a subject, an “I,” through the foundational experience of castration anxiety, produced by his discovery of a woman’s, or his mother’s, lack of a penis. “The castration complex [is] essential for the organization of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father,” as Laura Mulvey explained it. Building on this classic notion, theorist, psychoanalyst, and artist Bracha L. Ettinger has proposed a nonphallic account of subjectivization, in which she differentiates between the castration complex and what she calls the matrixial complex, linked to the maternal womb. In the matrixial subjectivizing stratum, the subject is formed through touching, hearing, and moving. The “I” and the “non-I” coexist in a process of change and exchange. Ettinger’s matrixial hypothesis characterizes the intricate maternal psychodrama embodied by Upson’s work, in which she slips in and out of Karin’s skin, psyche, and persona. Two identical plaid-shirt-wearing sculptures (both Untitled, 2020–21) here made one wonder: Is it Karin, or is it Kaari dressed as Karin (meaning, is the daughter sitting in her mother’s crocodile jaws or the other way around)? Formally, Upson played with doubling and creation through touch as well. To make the pictures in this show, she painted on plastic and then pressed it onto the canvas, applying her medium through a kind of skin-to-skin contact between two surfaces, a collapse of separate entities—a “co-emerging partial self and Other,” to borrow a phrase from Ettinger.

Unlike the psychoanalytically informed feminist work of the 1980s, which purposefully denied visual gratification as a rebuff to the fetishizing male gaze, Upson’s art is a pleasure to look at. It is materially bold, seductively excessive, and emotionally fraught—as if Mary Kelly were to meet Mike Kelley. Upson’s oeuvre is as Lacanian as it is Ettingerian (or, better yet, Wagnerian), a kind of autobiographical mythmaking replete with bombastic leitmotifs and characters. She had a gift for delivering knotty ideas—abjection, feminism, Freudianism—via rich material forms that were equally off-putting and enticing.