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KAARI UPSON (1970–2021) Paulina Pobocha

Kaari Upson, 2017

Kaari Upson, 2017

Early in the pandemic, a lot was going on and I hadn’t heard from Kaari in 25 days, so I texted her: “Hi! Do you still need hair balls!?” Yes, she replied. Five days later, on July 30, 2020, I sent an envelope from my home in Brooklyn to her studio in Los Angeles. It contained one large, repellent wad of cast-off hair. When it finally arrived more than two weeks later, Kaari texted me a photo of my hair ball in the company of others. One could call it a convening. And while I’m not altogether sure from where every last strand originated, at least some of the hair was grown by her friends and some by their children. Some was her own. I didn’t really ask about her plans for it – she told me she would keep it safe from witches and away from Donald Trump; the latter was good enough for me.

Kaari was too much, but not “too much” in that flip-of-the-wrist or slap-on-the-thigh “You’re too much” kind of way. She talked too fast; her brain fired faster. She would fill sheets of paper with notes to record the ideas that crowded her head – to give them concrete form and structure. On a page they became tangles (of hair) of letters and glyphs, crossed out, retraced, repeated, boxed, circled, drawn over, meaning moving one way across the paper, then abruptly changing course. She did this when we first sat down to talk in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Within minutes, she shared with me plans for a large-scale project she wanted to realize in her native San Bernardino. In an empty lot adjacent to where her parents lived, she hoped to replicate their house but invert it, like a reflected image. I barely knew Kaari then and didn’t yet understand her abiding passion for mirrors, doubles, psychoanalysis, and the darkness she could extract from the milquetoast banality of suburban life, which she inhabited without shame (even after living in Los Angeles for decades) and critiqued with the sharpness of a razor, or the torn aluminum lip of a defective Pepsi can.

Back in the Garden, the intricacies of her plans overwhelmed me, and not just the physical step-by-step procedures that she had already worked out to realize her vision, but also the multitudes of meanings held therein. While talking, Kaari found a piece of paper; maybe it was something I had brought with me, maybe it was a take-away map of the museum – I don’t remember. I do remember she filled the page with words, phrases, references to Lacan (for sure), arrows, squiggly lines, and exclamation points for emphasis (though one look at the energy in her handwriting and the complexity of the resultant composition made clear that emphasis, everywhere, was implied, ipso facto). These were anything but scribbles; her marks were deliberate as though she were simply transcribing an image already present in her brilliant, restless mind. Creating its double, as it were.

Before she left, it was decided that we would go to San Bernardino at some point in the indeterminate future. There, we would stop for a “garbage burrito.” We never made that trip, and I still haven’t had a “garbage burrito,” so I can’t tell you what’s in it. Knowing it was Kaari’s favorite, I can only assume it had too much of everything and as a result was absolutely delicious.

“Too much” is too often presented in the pejorative, as a lack of self-control, the absence of a filter, the inability or unwillingness to pull back. Coco Chanel, not necessarily known for her asceticism, famously illustrated the virtuosity of moderation – of the “just enough” – with her memorable dictum “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” (Is being “too much” implicitly unladylike, maybe even a touch vulgar?) But, looking into a mirror always results in more. You can take off one thing, or two things, or ten things, and you will still have double what you started with.

“Too much” never frightened Kaari; she luxuriated in it and made art from it, transforming the expansive landscapes of her imagination into places we could inhabit. The clearest example of this is The Larry Project (2005–12), a seven-year odyssey starring Larry, a character Kaari built from the charred remnants and personal mementos that once belonged to a person she never met. From Larry came notes, drawings, sculptures, video, a performance, and a grotto, pulled together in a bewildering psychodrama of Kaari’s conception through which she became the character she invented, his mother, his lover, and his twin. In her work, here and elsewhere, her penchant for abundance, overabundance, capably engulfed you. You could lose yourself in Larry and become so fully engrossed in the small-bore details of his narrative (Larry played squash?!) that his reality became as real as your own – a sensation both enchanting and terrifying. Kaari had many talents  – this was her most magical.

The Larry Project was a beginning, and more than a decade of work followed it. There are mattresses cast in latex that appear simultaneously sullied and luminous, and sculptures of sectional sofas made from urethane, so bent out of shape that they can take the appearance of prolapsed rectums or engorged penises. Use furniture long enough, and dead skin cells, broken bits of hair, oil, sweat, and other bodily secretions will burrow and seep deep into its fibers, turning it into a repugnant receptacle of biological matter. How many cells must amass before every bed or couch becomes an extension of the self? Or, better yet, comes into a life of its own?

In Search of the Perfect Double (I) (2016) is a sculpture of a couch, distorted, upended, and colored like a bruise. The work, now in MoMA’s collection, belongs to an ambitious endeavor titled “home1/home” that centers on the house of Kaari’s lifelong friend who lives in Las Vegas, where she cares for her autistic adult son. Kaari planned to create duplicate versions of the contents of the tract-housing structure in which they lived and, eventually, of the architecture itself. Talking with me about the environment, she described it as chaotic, sad, and violent, by turns. It wore on the emotions of everyone involved to such an extent that, in the end, the project was abandoned. One of several sculptures Kaari was able to realize, In Search of the Perfect Double (I) is a gnarled and perverted version of the sectional from the Las Vegas home that physically registers the intense psychological pressure circulating throughout the site. Looking beyond these specifics, with Kaari’s death so fresh in my eyes that I have to squeeze them shut in a futile effort to alleviate the feeling of irretrievable loss, I wonder about these “doubles” with which she populated the world. Kaari lived with cancer for about a decade and thereby was finely attuned to her mortality (is there another way of living with cancer?). In her absence, these “doubles” also double as her.

In June 2018, I was in Berlin for the opening of the Berlin Biennale and found myself at a cocktail reception hosted by Sprüth Magers. It was a beautiful day and refreshments were being served on the lush green lawn behind the gallery’s Oranienburger Straße location. In the middle of lively conversations and Aperol spritzes, Kaari’s sculpture My Mom Drinks Pepsi II (2015) felt like a needle hitting a scratch on a record while your favorite song plays, the one that, after years, still hasn’t gotten old. Dug into the ground, the work is a grave made from cast aluminum Pepsi cans in tribute to Karin Upson, Kaari’s mother who at the time was very much alive. Yet, it landed like deadweight – not because it was a grave per se, or dedicated to her mother, whom I hadn’t met and never will (she died of cancer on April 4, 2020), but because Kaari and Karin were so often interchangeable, with Kaari disappearing into her mother’s plaid shirt and jeans in videos, sculptures, drawings, and a book in which pages of Karin’s autobiography alternate with images of Kaari making this sculpture. I had seen Kaari working on My Mom Drinks Pepsi II in her studio, enveloped in the excitement that new ideas generate. If making a sculpture in the form of a grave for her mother (or herself) upset or disturbed her, she didn’t let on. Instead, she worked with the fiery energy of someone with too much to say, fully knowing she may never have the chance to say it all.

I am dumbly naive about death. I know I will die, we know we will die, but usually it’s not top of mind. I think Kaari thought differently, though we never talked about it. When various treatments held her cancer at bay, she worked without pause on projects of monumental proportions that needed time to complete. Her large-scale drawings took months, and she worked on them in the evenings so as not to borrow time from the making of sculpture, which often required the help of studio assistants during the day. Knowing a work would need a year or more to complete meant that she had to be around to complete it. This strategy (if you could call it that) worked for years until Kaari’s cancer could no longer be contained by anticancer drugs, chemotherapy, or radiation – there was simply too much of it. From this too-muchness, she died on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.

In the end, I don’t know what Kaari did with the hair balls, but I hope they are still together; I hope that Kaari’s hair is sitting in a ziplock bag somewhere in LA surrounded by the snarled knots of the many people who loved her deeply and to whom she gave so much.

(Dedicated to Esmé Rudell)