Kaari Upson

Doubles. Replicas. Restagings. Familial stand-ins. Identity swaps. Hypersexualized alter egos. Obsessive repetitions. Regression, decay, and loss. Although still early in her career, Kaari Upson may very well be the great unheralded American artist the way Patricia Highsmith, in her time, proved to be the great unheralded American novelist. Upson and Highsmith, in different ways and to extremely different ends, both capture the dark, disturbing psychologies behind the national pastime of self-invention and reinvention, and they both trace the ever-shifting line between public and private desires. The 44-year-old Los Angeles artist made her mark several years back when she transformed a box of personal items found in an abandoned house across the street from her parents’ San Bernardino address into an ever expanding phantasmagoria of sculptures, videos, drawings, performance, and emotional wish fulfillment centered on a partly real, partly fictional man named “Larry” (The Larry Project, 2005-ongoing). As the project grew, it became impossible to separate reality from illusion, creation from destruction, control from compulsion, an identity born from an identity subsumed (among her acts of constructive destruction, Upson created a life-size cast model of Larry out of charcoal that was slowly destroyed as his body was used for a drawing; she also inverted his home staircase into a hole in the ground).

Upson could be considered an inheritor to the elaborate psychological investigations of Sophie Calle, although the California artist’s process seems far more tactile, body-centric, and violently assertive. She could also be viewed as an inheritor of Ed Ruscha’s interest in decoding Western myths, although Upson’s sites are not the macho Hollywood frontiers of the horizontal landscape but the traumatic rooms of childhood, the suburban tract house, and the big-box stores and its pre-assigned fantasy materials. Upson has the magnificent ability to give form and flesh to our subconscious specters and half-processed memories and yearnings with all of the beauty and horror that they require. Last month, she showed a series of warped and strained furniture sculptures, as if for a domestic interior on the cusp of perishing, as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Next month, Upson will have a solo show at New York’s New Museum called “Good Thing You Are Not Alone,” where, among her sculptural installations, an unnamed blond protagonist will be searching for her ideal double in a maze of warped store aisles and even a Las Vegas tract house left abandoned after the 2008 housing crisis. While preparing for these shows, Upson spoke with her old friend, actor Josh Lucas, about putting down roots in places with a high fire frequency, dropping out of school, and the limits of and lanes into knowing another human being. —Christopher Bollen

KAARI UPSON: Hi, Josh. I just got done with so much work. We’re just going to have to wing it. Are you ready for this?

JOSH LUCAS: Yes. Let me start by asking you a question that’s been in my mind ever since I was asked to interview you. About eight to ten years ago, we were sitting in your living room and you were struggling. You were going through a very difficult time in your life, and I think it was during the time you were beginning to build The Grotto [2008-09] project. You were sitting on the couch, and I said to you, “Do you think you are addicted to suffering, to pain?”

UPSON: Wow, I don’t remember that. What happened? Nobody’s asked me that.

LUCAS: That’s your start. [laughs]

UPSON: I have to break down the word suffering since I don’t know what that means at this very second. We could look it up. Let’s just describe it as pain because suffering sounds as if you put yourself in continuous pain. Do you suffer from happiness? I don’t think so. I recently read my mom’s memoir. I’ve only done two books in my life and neither one is a catalog, although both are art books; they’re source material and ideas, not finished objects. The last one I did was for a show in Berlin at Sprüth Magers this past November. The book is called My Mother Drinks Pepsi. I was working on a sculpture for the last year and a half, and it was very difficult. In the difficulty of translating and diagramming to other people how it needed to be done, we almost created our own language. Those diagrams became so musical that I knew all of these ways of translating what needed to get done had to be put in a book, but I didn’t know what it was going to be. I ended up pulling that out, deciding on doing this show and deciding that the show was actually the book and not the art objects that were made. With that came my mother’s memoir, which she wrote seven years ago. I had never read it. It just stayed on a shelf.

LUCAS: Did she publish it?

UPSON: It’s published now, Josh.

LUCAS: I mean, before you published it. Your mother made it and put it on her bookshelf. It was a private thing. Did anybody read it other than you?

UPSON: What happened was, seven years ago, my mom handed it to me. She had it published and made at Kinko’s. It had a binder and photos and her memoir. She didn’t give it to my brother. She only gave it to me. It was this weighted thing where I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to read this.” I opened it up and couldn’t even get past page two. It was so not subjective. It was objective facts, as if you could write a book of all facts: names, dates, places. It was insane. It was like I couldn’t crack the code of my mother through this book so it made me feel even more distant. It really is alarming to me that you re-create within your family a resistance to pain. I gave the book to my friend who reads scripts for a living. She does that thing where they give you a synopsis of what they read in a page. I said, “Can you crack this? I don’t understand this story.” I hadn’t seen her in years and I finally asked if she had read it. She was like, “It was amazing. I just never got back to you.” I knew I finally needed to read it. It took me six months to get it back from her. I don’t know why, but as I was making this project of my mother drinking Pepsi, I read her memoir. Her memoir goes, once I got past page two: death, death, killing, bombed, dead, married, birth, killed, dying. It was written in this very objective POV, a “this is just what happened,” where it’s just rape and Soviet soldiers in postwar Germany, growing up and escaping from the East to the West. What I realized at the end—because she meets my father, and it doesn’t even include her children or the life that developed her children—she had such a resistance to horror and suffering that she developed a capability of seeing it as fact and not absorbing it. She found out all of the places she could move to in America when she was living in Hannover, West Germany, since she had pen pals all over. She had one in San Bernardino, and she was only excited about San Bernardino. The terrain, the systematic weather, the fire and droughts and mudslides and fires again—it all re-created the childhood in which she grew up, meaning there was a constant fear of the whole house being gone in a matter of hours. She only chose the crappy city of San Bernardino to live—maybe it was better back then, but really bad now. I grew up in a constant state of something coming from the outside that you couldn’t control, and everything could be gone at any minute. By the time I was 7, five houses on the street completely burned down. The guy on the one side of us died in a fire and their house never got rebuilt. It just stayed like that.

LUCAS: I must pause you because I’m so amazed. The only couple questions I prepared were about the idea of suffering, the idea of your mother and father, and the idea of San Bernardino. Those were the only three things that I thought were so absolutely paramount.

UPSON: I don’t talk about San Bernardino a lot.

LUCAS: For me, your essence as an artist was that you’re from San Bernardino, which is also horrifying to think that there was a recent terrorist act there. It all comes from within, like these fires, like the idea of The Larry Project. So few people understand that the genesis of that project is truly San Bernardino. It’s truly from that cul-de-sac you lived on.

UPSON: How do you know I lived on a cul-de-sac? I never told you that!

LUCAS: Oh, come on. [Upson laughs] The idea of your family living across the street and your brother trying to protect the house—it all exactly goes to what I’m saying. It’s weirdly suffering.

UPSON: And it’s weirdly normal!

LUCAS: No, it’s not weirdly normal, Kaari. [laughs] I don’t think that’s true.

UPSON: The other day I had to do something at the hospital. I chose to, yes, show no pain. Normally that’s not how I am. I’m a human being. I feel things exactly the same as everybody else. But there was this point where it was a complete waste of time to express the pain of it, and I realized you could literally section it out. Maybe this is post reading my mother’s book, too, where you start objectifying your own body. Not to say you don’t feel empathy toward it, but you don’t come from the inside. It’s super strange. The reading of my mom’s memoir and the fact that she could actually find another place on the other side of world in order to—

LUCAS: Suffer.

UPSON: And it’s self-created chaos. The fear is that you are conditioned that it’s the definition of feeling alive, and anything less feels dead. What do we do about that? I started to have new respect for my mother. She sat my daughter down once and said, “Esme, what’s your first memory?” Esme didn’t have an answer because she was 10 at the time. She didn’t think about life as in terms of an older person’s understanding of what your first memory is. My mom asked it wanting to say what hers was. She said her first memory was standing with a group of kids in the snow, and an opa—what they called a grandpa—was crossing the street and a Soviet tank hit him for fun. All the soldiers were laughing. The man died in front of her. She was telling my daughter this like she was telling what she was going to order for a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. It’s a good way to start thinking about how we retrace our steps and that our lineage folds back into itself and repeats itself either through my brother, who stayed in San Bernardino, or me, who got out. I tried to get out when I was 15, but I got out successfully when I was 16. I know this can go in a lot of directions, but can I ask you a question? I’m so curious since you’ve known me so long. When I was in San Bernardino, I hated it and pretended I was somebody else and from somewhere else. You’ve known me for all these years in all these different stages—you might know me almost better than myself in a weird way. I was interested in creating a portrait of myself through impressions from you; this idea that the version of me that exists in you might be just as true as the one I perceive and perform. Does that make sense?

LUCAS: It makes strangely perfect sense. [laughs]

UPSON: I wrote a couple questions down late last night when you’re in that perfect space where your brain’s not thinking. Why do you think I dropped out of high school? You’re a dropout too, correct?

LUCAS: No, I barely finished.

UPSON: You took a test and got out.

LUCAS: I just left. Why do I think you dropped out of high school? Wow. I hate to have these incredibly basic, boring answers, but it’s due to feeling alone, and feeling like a terrible outcast. My earliest memory of you is actually on Carmine Street in New York City. You were wearing this sexy, hot, little black dress. You were a bartender at this restaurant.

UPSON: The Cornelia Street Café.

LUCAS: I remember you standing there. I remember walking towards you and wanting you in my brain to be this hot New York chick. But I saw something inside you that was like, “Wait, this girl is completely not. She’s a total outcast from San Bernardino.” I saw something in that moment that made me realize why we weren’t destined to be great lovers but great friends. [laughs] It was really, profoundly a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. That’s a moment that comes to my mind when thinking about the girl who dropped out of high school. So awkward, so sexy, so uncomfortable. Kaari, that’s the thing that shocks me. That’s your art. There’s this representation of this hot model girl but who’s completely opposite.

UPSON: Oh my God, in my $20 outfit.

LUCAS: Think about it. You paint yourself as a Playboy model. There’s why you dropped out. Am I wrong or am I right? You tell me.

UPSON: I had many different personas, even as a kid. It’s funny that you say that, because we’re going through and re-creating this kind of girl-next-door video for the Istanbul Biennial. In The Grotto and the suffering I had to put myself through while examining taboo with Hugh Hefner and with saying that every man’s deepest fantasy is to have sex with identical twin sisters—it took me through a very long process where I’m then calling sex-call workers to try to get them to pretend to be my twin sister and have sex with me and faking it, and she’s faking it because she’s getting paid. That was a really hard time. At the same time, I got to have the fake boobs and the fake vagina underwear and look sexy and take on that role. I’m not doing the opposite end of the spectrum now, but the middle of the spectrum of a woman—this is actually very interesting because it comes back to your mother. We went for your birthday at that shitty Spanish restaurant where you liked to eat lobster on Houston Street.

LUCAS: El Paso.

UPSON: Right. I don’t remember which birthday it was, but it was a long time ago. Your mom—this is very important—sat at the table of ten of us. We’re all talking at the same time.

LUCAS: And eating cheap lobster.

UPSON: The worst lobster. [both laugh] Then your mom tried to say something—your mom being the most beautiful woman on the planet—and no one would listen to her. And then she tried to say it again and no one would listen to her. Then, looking straight at me, she said, “Someday you’ll get to a point where you’re no longer beautiful enough, and people don’t stop talking for you.” I just stared at her. I was thinking of the horror.

LUCAS: My mom has spoken to me a number of times about it. She calls it “the moment you become invisible.”

UPSON: Yep, there you go. Men don’t have to go through that moment. Part of the reason she even knows the moment is because she was in that position before to be the one everyone wanted. Your mom called it “the moment you become invisible.” I’m going to put that in my drawing. The new work at the New Museum deals with this female character right at the point where the subject is no longer looked at.

LUCAS: The moment you become invisible.

UPSON: She interrupts space like a giant lump in the middle of Costco. Nobody addresses this character—which, by the way, is not that far from who I am now. Nobody even looks at me. It really makes you work backwards and discover there are a lot of other ways in. My child, Esme, is talking constantly about what were the other names we almost named her and says, “Maybe I should have been this other name.” I tell her, “You can do whatever you want. I changed my name like five times.” I kept thinking about reinventing myself even when I was a kid. In fact, I consider my first art piece happening when I was in San Bernardino surrounded by all these teens and preteens who started to date. It made me so nervous and sick and I couldn’t do it. I invented a boyfriend. Did I ever tell you this? I invented a boyfriend when I was 14.

LUCAS: This is exactly The Larry Project.

UPSON: Kind of, I mean, yeah. [both laugh] Larry doesn’t matter. Larry is not the center of it. But I invented him and wrote letters from him to me so that I could show my friends so that I wouldn’t have to date these lowlifes in San Bernardino. But I was one of those lowlifes. The idea of wanting to be that girl is dead center in it.

LUCAS: You’ve always said that you felt that painting is dead. Yet the great work I have of yours is a painting. It’s a painting you made that you tried to destroy or throw away, and I rescued it. You have an extraordinary range of work—which is still emerging in three-dimensional and interactive ways—but the average human wants to look at something a great artist makes that’s on their wall. I don’t know if I agree with you with the idea that painting is dead. You might possibly be one of the great painters without anybody knowing it. That feeling that I get from your paintings, do you not feel at all when you paint? Do you only feel that when you’re doing something interactive?

UPSON: I’m painting right now, but I’m painting three dimensionally. I’m painting on sculptures. I realize the nostalgia, the longing for something that never existed, in that act.

LUCAS: It doesn’t feel like some crazy, cathartic, emotional experience that you’re missing because you’re not performing in a way.

UPSON: It’s nonverbal. I don’t play music and I don’t even do sports anymore, so that one outlet where you don’t have to think in the same way as other outlets that require language. Yeah, I miss it deeply. But painting is problematic, because it so often stands in as the very easily absorbable artwork that has a higher value than other art. And it comes with that old idea of the individual genius, which needs to be critiqued. All of that sort of dead-ended me. Talk about cul-de-sac. I’m not saying painting is dead; I’m just saying that I can’t resuscitate it. That being said, I always work in a project-oriented way—even the fake-boyfriend scenario at 14 was a project. And if, during a large project, an idea needs to come through painting and it hasn’t been done before, I’ll do it. I love when the day arrives when something needs to be painted. I draw a lot, and it has a lesser value in the history of art as a liminal stage in art. It’s normally where you put your ideas that lead to the final thing.

LUCAS: It’s a rough draft.

UPSON: The art world can absorb anything and make it valuable, but historically nothing makes as much as painting. Drawing is still an in-between space.

LUCAS: Is that why you want to destroy your art? It can’t be used as something monetary?

UPSON: No, but I do enforce rules, like if I make a mold of something and create three objects, I would never put the value on them of, “There are only three of these in the world.” That’s an arbitrary, noncritical, ridiculous way of inflating your prices. I think the whole “edition of three” thing is a manipulation of the market. 

LUCAS: Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m saying about wanting to destroy your work.

UPSON: I have a lot of different issues. First of all, I think of the art as dead when it leaves my studio. I don’t even own it anymore. Installing in a museum or a show that’s coming up, I’m not allowed to touch my own work ever. It just seems strange to me. If somebody puts me in front of my drawings, I’d put more text in it. It’s never finished, but none of my work is ever finished. It’s not devaluing it; it’s just to me it doesn’t have an end point. It’s a funny cycle thinking about that kind of painter I was and that you’re one of the few people who got to see it. Nobody now would ever think of me doing that now, I don’t think. You’ve seen all the shows pretty much. Maybe that side of me will come out again now.

LUCAS: I would hope so. The pieces of art I have currently in my possession—which has nothing to do with owning them, it’s just passing through—there’s work of yours that I think compares to anything in the world.

UPSON: I don’t agree! Burn that shit.

LUCAS: That’s why I have it on lockdown, and you’re not allowed over. You’re not allowed to come over since you’re going to destroy it. [laughs]

UPSON: I will. I threw it out in the trash, and then you took it out of the trash. Don’t you feel this way sometimes? Do you look back on all of your work? How do you splice it up into “That’s good and that’s not good”? Sometimes what we think is bad is better.

LUCAS: For me, I don’t think anything I’ve ever done is good. The reality is I truly look back on it and I don’t want to destroy it because it’s the experience and that’s what it was.

UPSON: It’s not an object. It can’t be destroyed.

LUCAS: Yeah. The experience of acting is an ephemeral experience because it’s purely the experience of doing it. People’s experience of watching it is totally different from my experience of doing it, which no one can own.

UPSON: All the years you knew me, I painted alone. It’s mortifying to think about it—15 years with nobody ever seeing it other than my best friends. They all, like you, told me I was great. I was in this secluded bubble. Then once it gets brought out into the world and I went to CalArts, one teacher said to me, “Take that shit home and get rid of it.” There was a moment where I was like, “Oh, showing your art to your best friends might not be the best idea.” Now some of my work is out there in the world. I can’t just go home and burn it. It’s out there. There’s nothing I can do about it. It stifled me for a while. It made me overthink, and now I have a whole new grasp. I’m in a whole new mode of making work. Okay, I’m not going to ask you who you think my favorite artist is or what my last meal would be if I was going to be executed. That’s not going to come up now.

LUCAS: My assumption would be Egon Schiele.

UPSON: Wow! So romantic, Josh.

LUCAS: Would it be?

UPSON: You’re talking to my 16-year-old self. [laughs] I love the idea that I love Egon Schiele. What would be my last meal? Josh, come on, think.

LUCAS: Fuck. I don’t know, Kaari.

UPSON: Yes, you do! You know me better than anybody.

LUCAS: I think it would be a hamburger or steak.

UPSON: For me? [laughs]

LUCAS: Yeah, that’s what my sense is. It goes back to Southern California.

UPSON: Yeah! The first McDonald’s in the world is in San Bernardino. Did you know that?

LUCAS: Would it be turkey?

UPSON: No, that’s the turkey sandwich that my grandmother made. But that’s very close. You should know, what was the food I cooked you over and over? It was Mexican food. It would be a burrito, thank you. I just thought you’d be the closest to knowing that.