“OH, I AM SUCH A PAINTER!” Kaari Upson as soon as exclaimed, although she usually went to nice lengths to disguise this vocation by sublimating her painterly impulses into hallucinatory sculptures, screwball installations, and audacious efficiency movies. “Portrait (Useless German)” is the provocative title she gave to a sequence of modestly scaled work begun in 2020 and accomplished shortly earlier than her demise this previous August. Thirty-two of those hung in a double band round her Los Angeles studio after I visited it in January; ten will make their debut in “The Milk of Desires,” the fifty-ninth version of the Venice Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani. Right here, work is a useful shorthand for advanced forged objects made with tinted Aqua-Resin. They started as tiny, tile-like accretions of thickly impastoed pigment on canvasboard that have been then scanned and enlarged. The difficult course of that produced them is much less vital than their extremely charged presence, which teeters between ravishing and lurid.
The parenthetical title of the works alludes to their art-historical lineage. The basis of vainness is the Latin vanus, which means “vacancy” or “futility.” Within the vanitas style, all the iconography—skulls, melting candles, timepieces, flowers—symbolizes the passage of time and the inevitable victory of demise. Nonetheless lifes function technique of self-reflection—typically explicitly, as in Pieter Claesz’s Vanitas Nonetheless Life with Self Portrait, 1628. In Upson’s variations, a face normally emerges from the fray. Generally it takes the type of a cranium; in a number of works within the sequence, the face is a lumpy, Guston-y clock, ticking away.
The difficult course of that produced the works is much less vital than their extremely charged presence, which teeters between ravishing and lurid.
Upson spent years using a curler coaster of most cancers remedy and remission, working in extraordinary bursts of productiveness till her demise final summer time on the age of fifty-one. Protruding into the third dimension, these work are demise masks. Throbbing purples and dusty pinks (extra shades of Guston) seem ceaselessly, recalling Upson’s abject forged mattresses and sectional sofas, which have been already stand-ins for our bodies, crumpled, sagging, bruised, rotting. The equation is pushed house with explicit power in Upson’s set up Mom’s Legs, 2018–19 (first exhibited at Kunsthalle Basel, and later at Louisiana Museum of Fashionable Artwork in Humlebæk, Denmark), during which huge knobby-kneed limbs in corporeal shades dangle from the ceiling, variously resembling legs, logs, or carcasses.
The “German” of the parenthetical title undoubtedly refers to Upson’s mom, who emigrated from East Germany to San Bernardino, in California’s Inland Empire, and was usually a topic of the artist’s work, although viewers could need to do some decoding to understand this. Upson’s first solo exhibition in Germany, at Berlin’s Sprüth Magers in 2016, was titled “MMDP”—“My Mother Drinks Pepsi”—and included a “logbook” containing excerpts of her mom’s chilling unpublished autobiography, detailing her upbringing below a brutal, repressive regime. Within the four-channel video Recluse Brown, 2015–16, the artist sports activities short-cropped blonde hair (a wig?), a red-white-and-blue checkered shirt, and denims—a mother persona that in later exhibitions would seem en masse as life-size sculptures however right here inhabits a Costco retailer as if it have been paradise, sitting on a provisional throne constructed of Pepsi instances. Within the artist’s personal phrases, “She interrupts area like an enormous lump.”
My preliminary response to “Useless German” transported me again to my first assembly with Upson in 2007, within the “honeymoon interval” of “The Larry Challenge” (2005–12), a sprawling investigation of a creepy San Bernardino playboy neighbor and his charred McMansion. In “Kiss,” a sequence of work from 2007, she smooshed a portrait of Larry towards her matching self-portrait, wet-on-wet, yielding a diptych that consecrated the psychic entanglement of artist and topic. The Useless Germans appear to do one thing related, though in methods which are extra elusive than allusive, and accumulative—the red-and-blue grid of the Costco costume makes a suggestive return in one among these work, for instance. However largely I sense an artist confronting a traumatic inheritance that no quantity of portray may ever exorcise. That her mom’s demise preceded her personal by little greater than a 12 months makes it that rather more wrenching to ponder these painterly (self) portraits, which directly verify Upson’s place within the vanitas custom and urgently deliver that custom and its ever well timed obsession with finality into the current.
Michael Ned Holte is an impartial curator who teaches within the artwork program on the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.