“It’s amazing how little a tree will look in the forest, and how insanely large and deformed it looks in your house,” Kaari Upson muses in her video Masquerade (2019). This sets the tone for a combination of works at Sprüth Magers in Los Angeles—all responses to a dollhouse built for the artist’s collaborator, Kris, by Kris’s mother—that comprise a poignant reflection on the fabrication of stories and objects and the vicissitudes of scale. In the video, Upson is garishly made up: trompe l’oeil open eyes are painted on her closed lids, and she wears a black wig as she blindly describes a domestic setting populated with hats and hairpieces. In another video, Alex’s House (2019), Upson appears with Kris in similar makeup; both wear wigs to resemble the other. Together, they stumble through a sparse set, occasionally embracing, while Upson drags around her sculptures, including an enlarged cast version of a miniature wrapped gift from the original dollhouse. Some sculptures have spray-painted finishes that stain their clean white dresses. The two friends seem to enact an imaginary scene as the life-size inhabitants of an otherwise empty children’s dollhouse, controlled by some unseen force.
These two short videos, looped with one other called Clit Wisdom (2019), play on a monitor on the reverse side of a hearth that Upson cast in urethane from the contemporary fireplace in Kris’s Las Vegas home; its negative space holds a pile of cast table legs. The uncanny spillage of limb-like forms recalls the sculpture of Robert Gober, while the replica of a childhood space conjures the work of Mike Kelley. Nearby sits a sofa from the set in Alex’s House; 3D-milled from wood, it was then layered with spray paint for a red patina. A paper version of this same sofa was once part of Kris’s dollhouse. Elsewhere in the gallery are a urethane cast of a plastic-wrapped Christmas tree and two bulky forms resembling the casts of wrapped presents in the video, one upright and the other on its side. These elements all seem at home in the illusion of the enlarged dollhouse; less expected are the giant 3D-printed clit rings sitting on the sofa and piercing the wrapped Christmas tree. The clit rings relate to a story Kris tells in Clit Wisdom, while sitting in a rocking chair, about getting a clit piercing that would have disgusted an ex. With or without that explanation, Upson unsettles, combining the classic space of childhood fantasy with a darker, more mysterious, and sexualized vision of domestic life. The narratives in her videos amount to a loose memoir, where Upson and Kris reflect on encounters and decisions that may be their own or invented for their characters, as a child might for a doll. Upson’s voice is doubled in an eerie echo.
Aside from psychological disturbance, the artist achieves material intrigue through the moiré patterning of her objects, resulting from her spray-painting and digital printing processes. She also creates tension by substituting one material for another: the couch looks soft but is hard, and the table legs should be rigid but appear somewhat flaccid. Upson’s previous work with pillows and sectionals established a basis for this exploration; in Aqua-Fresh (2014–16), for example, she cast a used mattress, adding color to evoke stains. Meanwhile, the videos reinforce discrepancies in scale, partly because they are nested in the fireplace fragment but also because they feature elements of the installation itself as set pieces. Elsewhere in the exhibition are drawings and paintings that similarly deal with scale and domesticity, such as the artist’s huge untitled graphite drawings; the lightly scrawled and heavily bolded phrases in those works experiment with language as a complex tool for personal expression: self seeding, pleasure / preoccupation with waste, over identification with incongruous fantasy. Taken as a whole, the exhibition—the first solo presentation of the artist’s work in her home city since her untimely death last year—reinforces Upson’s significance as a powerful and moving storyteller.