GO BACK THE WAY YOU CAME
Excerpt from press release
Kaari Upson knows only too well the looming sense of impending disaster that clings, like smoke-choked air, to her hometown of San Bernardino, California. Wildfires regularly eat up the landscape; it is a place of frequent earthquakes, recurring drought, high crime and “prickly dread,” as writer Joan Didion describes it. Upson’s all-American father and German émigré mother ended up there, raising the artist in a single-story home built in the ruinous county, shaded by a large ponderosa pine and surrounded by abandoned homes and vacant lots. Her very first artworks swirled around the figure of “Larry,” her Hugh Hefner-styled San Bernardino neighbor. Subsequent projects tackled the specter of her Pepsi Cola-obsessed mother, as well as consumer culture, and “Americanness” writ large. Her most recent body of works, created for this first European institutional solo exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel, entails a return to her childhood home, zooming ever more closely into a trauma of origins that is as universal as it is particular.
Go Back the Way You Came: There are so many ways to understand the command that serves as Upson’s title. A hometown, a home, a mother— any of these could be said to be where each of us “came from,” and both home and mother con- nect in visceral ways, at least for Upson. She would remind you that we start symbiotically grow- ing our bodies inside another (our first home), embedded in a life that is not our own. Between mother and child boundaries are permeable, cells shift from body to body, with no sense of delineation or property. This is not a metaphor: Years after a woman gives birth, scientists can locate the unique genetic material of her baby floating around her cellular structures. The child has become part of her body, and her body becomes part of the child. Kinship, it seems, is a form of contamination.
And this is where Upson’s work invariably takes root: The site where intimacy meets repulsion, at that thin membrane between affinity and antagonism. To do so here, the artist literally eviscer- ates parts of her childhood environment. Cutting down, casting, and replicating the natural and architectural elements that she grew up in, Upson fuses not only self and other, but also body and object, desire and trauma. The gripping result interrogates the primordial meaning of the Unheimliche (uncanny), with its semantic core of Heim, or home, and its connection to things familiar-yet-strange.
The exhibition opens up into a forest of abstracted legs (although, perhaps, the ensemble might be better described as a freaky meat locker), cast from the termite-cratered wood of the massive tree the artist felled outside her family home. If kinship is a form of contamination, so, too, is creation a form of destruction. The exhibition’s dangling limbs, painted in hues ranging from “baby” to sickly “fleshy” pink, reveal the contours of oversized knees, cast from Upson’s own and those of her mother: To enter the gallery is to walk between this impressive expanse of Mother’s Legs, as the artist calls them. Go back the way you came: pushed through an orifice and into the space between spread legs.
Several generations of women, or their evocations, inhabit the exhibition. In one room, six busts stand guard, three based on Upson’s attempt to sculpt her mother’s mother’s face from memory, and three based on a childhood friend’s endeavor to do the same for her own maternal grandmother. Each is cast, enlarged, and thickly painted by Upson to reflect the face of her mother, grandmother, or self, or that of her friend, or the friend’s mother, or grandmother—their faces are then pressed into each other so that the paint smudges and melds. Ambiguous, unreliable portraits, each a multiplication of the “her” that populates the show, they stand as reminders of how mirrorings and slippages prevail in the particular brand of matriarchy that defines Upson’s world.
Ph. Philipp Hänger / Kunsthalle Basel