The recent work that California-based artist Kaari Upson presented in her New Museum exhibition ranged from monumental graphite-and-ink drawings to multicolored urethane sculptures protruding from the walls to videos featuring a bizarre female character in blue jeans and a plaid shirt to an immersive installation involving Costco shelving and stacks of dummies that shared the video character’s likeness. Despite a kind of material diversity, the works were deeply connected and often interdependent; the same motifs cropped up again and again, changing subtly as they moved from one medium to another. Each piece served as just one node in a densely woven web of cross-references and associations dealing with the mental conflicts and anxieties of everyday life.
Crocodile Mother (2017) is an assortment of selenite crystals resembling huge jagged teeth. According to the wall label, the piece alludes to the fact that the mother crocodile, while having powerful jaws and deadly teeth, safely transports her babies in her throat. Displayed on top of another sculpture—a collection of aluminum casts of Pepsi cans (Lifetime Supply, 2017) meant to refer to Upson’s mother’s daily soda-drinking habit—the crystal “teeth” pointed toward the deep intimacy and ambivalence that can be found in mother-child relationships, in which love may be mixed with dislike or even revulsion. The expression “crocodile mother” reappeared amid the composition of the drawing mother Drain (2017), which features fragments of imagery and text inscribed on top of and around a drainlike shape. Some big and carefully lettered, others small, hurriedly scribbled, or so faint as to be barely legible, the phrases revolve around notions of motherhood, trauma, and psychoanalysis, such as mother holding you hostage, ptsd in the womb, crocodile tears, and mother desires biting babies. This time, “crocodile mother” conjured the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who compared the mother, with her suffocating desire for her child to fulfill her hopes and unconscious yearnings, to a “huge crocodile” in whose jaws the child is trapped.
The visual and linguistic clues could continue to be followed to the other pieces on view. The circular shape dominating mother Drain was easily recognized in the sculpture mother drain (2017)—four urethane casts of a single segment from a sectional couch hung close to one another to form a round object. The figure of a crocodile could be spotted in one of various videos playing in the immersive installation, Idiot’s Guide Womb Room (2016-17). Screened on a TV monitor amid the Costco shelving, the video features Upson’s character, played by the artist herself, holding a toy crocodile while addressing the viewer in French. Partially based on Upson’s mother, the character is an embodiment of motherhood—a symbolic figure of formidable psychological power, but also humdrum banality. In the other videos, she is seen carrying out various mundane activities, such as cruising Costco aisles and touring tract homes with an almost robotic demeanor.
Upson’s malleable, polysemantic work mirrors the mechanics of the unconscious mind, with its circuitous, dreamlike logic operating via visual and verbal puns, metaphors, and constantly shifting signs. In exploring themes concerning the home as a psychologically fraught space and consumerism as a form of compulsion, Upson uncovers particular qualities of the American psyche—its self-referencing and self-perpetuating patterns of desire, pathos, and disillusionment.