Thinking Inside the Box: Q+A With Kaari Upson


For her most recent exhibition at Overduin and Kite in Los Angeles, Kaari Upson has created works in charcoal and smoke—materials with residue. Memory is the impetus for “The Larry Project” (2007–), an ongoing body of work for which Upson invents abandoned personal items of a fictional man she calls Larry.

Four Corners (all works 2011) is an enclosed wooden crate that contains debris the artist has accrued in an ongoing effort to destroy a charcoal cast she has made of a life-size Larry doll. In an effort to rid herself of him, the artist supposedly destroyed the doll inside that same box, leaving only its blackened effigy. Recorded sounds of dragging, slamming and throwing thunder inside the container. Her tools (broken tennis rackets, a mask), charcoal marks (waveform scrawls, erratic scuffs and rubs), and the cast’s remains can be viewed through a peephole accessed by lying on the ground; or through a square porthole, lined on all sides by mirrors, refracting views of a two-channel surveillance video. The artist has inventoried her destructive gestures, indexing them with straightforward titles in a series of charcoal tablets cast between malleable metal sheets, on view in the second gallery.

Pink latex casts of chandeliers, gates and a balcony rail resemble melted remains after a fire, stand-ins for the artist’s site-specific project on the site of where Larry’s house once stood, in San Bernardino, CA.


PAUL SOTO This show describes the site of a fire through pink latex forms that appear faded and decayed, as well as the smoke build-ups on aluminum. Could you tell me about this place?

KAARI UPSON  The project began at Larry’s old place, which I entered many years ago. It burned down, so I have been dealing with a site that no longer exists. The house has since been razed, and all I have now are photographs that I took beforehand, my memory, and whatever information I could find on the Internet. From that, I am slowly building the house back up through these soft forms.

SOTO  I am familiar with the wrought iron decorative motifs found in the cast fence-work of the draped balcony and narrow gates dangling from the ceiling, which resemble metal fence-work surrounding tract homes built in the 1970s east of Los Angeles, where you grew up.

UPSON  What remained when the house burned down was metalwork, melted glass and a lot of charred wood debris. Resurrecting the metalwork was important. These pieces function as residue, and as thresholds between the works in the show.

SOTO  The language that you use—describing Four Corners to me as “a space that exists between sensory and long-term memory,” and now calling these works “thresholds”—seems to reference a process by which you map your memory, and their inscribed meanings, out in the exhibition space. This is a disorderly process, here appearing as an exorcism of sorts, especially in the aggressive nature of the gestures cast onto the tablets, and the way you are rubbing out the charcoal cast of the Larry doll in Four Corners.

UPSON  The charcoal cast sculpture has gone through so many manifestations that I don’t even know what it is anymore. I am interested in taking inanimate objects and embedding them with meaning, not unlike child’s play. The cast that is being demolished inside the box is of the doll, which began in 2007 as a substitute of the real thing, embodying as much precise information that I had about Larry. You can follow the project’s development almost entirely through the doll’s transformation. It was a sculpture, a traditional art object, to begin with. I brought it back to the studio and used it in videos, so it became more like a theatrical prop. Then it became simply an object, because we were casting every inch of it to make it into charcoal. When it was dismembered and put all over the studio, the question arose of the transfer of meaning, and whether it was still in the doll. If the cast was cut up all over the ground, was it in the mold?

I used the charcoal and wax paraffin binder medium specifically because I knew I would destroy it, and that another transformation would occur because it would move from sculpture into drawing. By rubbing the doll onto the wall and transferring it, no matter what I did, it would not be destroyed, moving instead into another medium. Meaning would transfer into drawing and into dust, which would then become another object. These traces of something that never existed does have the feeling of an exorcism, in this idea that it is me alone, possessed by this archive of information about Larry, and having some sort of physical thing happen to me, and out from me, without anybody else being there.

SOTO  How does your studio practice—Four Corners and the smoke paintings—compare to your work on-site?

UPSON  I have been working in the box on and off for a year. It was important that the box was being worked on simultaneously as the soft house was being made. I wasn’t sure why, but very strangely, both situations mirrored each other perfectly, as in a science experiment.

SOTO  Your studio being the control arm, and the site in San Bernardino is its variant.

UPSON  Yes. With two people, I dug a hole 12 feet deep to cast the soft stairs for the house during the big rains last year. The second we would have the stairs formed out of the dirt, it would be washed out. There was this constant doing and undoing. I thought I was losing my mind. This was one instance in which this thing was happening to me. There was no control over the environment. No matter how we thought we had figured it out, the next day something would inevitably happen. I felt honestly that I was saving my house from a flood, but it wasn’t a house—it’s a hole in the ground, on a site I was trespassing on, to get this art object done. But it did take on some very real feelings in terms of stress, and the same goes for inside the box.

There is a lot of serious physical action necessary to destroy the charcoal cast of Larry in Four Corners. The sculpture weighs over 200 pounds, the average weight of an adult male. I would go into the box for no more than two hours at a time only because I am physically exhausted in the end.

SOTO  Where does the language on the smoke paintings come from? Looking closely, I found a rubbed out scrawl that says “I HATE LIFE.” Is this a direct expression of your frustration with your material—the wood panels that continued to catch on fire, and the mirrors that continued to shatter when you applied the flame—or maybe frustration with Larry himself?

UPSON  I found this weird footage of my mom and me inside the garage of this house, which was the only section that survived the fire. My computer crashed at one point, but we got it back and up on the screen was this moving image that read “I HATE LIFE.” It was the weirdest bit of graffiti in this dark garage. A lot of the text that comes out of the work gets so diluted at this point. It is recursive in that it arises out of its own system. I generally do not just grab at things. It is literal reference to something that I found in the project. Every bit of text.

Upson is currently featured in a group show,OH!” at Massimo De Carlo, Milan [through Nov. 26].