July 6, 2017 - Kaari Upson is an American visual artist who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work commonly employs drawing, painting, sculpture and video with an almost forensic attention to detail. As she explains here, a big part of Upson’s creative practice springs from an apparent inability to just chill out: “Even when I’m trying to unplug, I’m really not. If I’m watching a dumb reality show, I’m still writing down weird bits of language that I might want to use in a video or something. I can't stop.”

As told to T. Cole Rachel, 2561 words.

Tags: Art, Process, Inspiration, Anxiety, Independence, Success.

Kaari Upson on maintaining a sense of urgency

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Your work is often very object-oriented. What is it that draws you to certain kinds of objects? And what does exploring an object mean in terms of your creative practice?

I trust my instincts now that when I see an object and I’m going to work in depth on it, I just go with it. Formally I generally start with something where I have no idea what the outcome’s going to be, but I invest a lot of time and thought in looking at the object. Then I just kind of work backwards or I work sideways—I overly research something, and then I draw it out. I keep drawing it to the point that a lot of times the imagery starts to overlap. Then from there I generally go off and make a video. Then the video re-informs the drawing, and then the sculpture generally gets made. I see the sculpture as this byproduct of the drawings and the video. I don’t see them as some whole perfect static thing. I see them as this byproduct.

Your sculptural work is interesting in that often makes us rethink the purposes of utilitarian objects. I was thinking about the way we consider inside objects versus outside objects.

Yes. That reminds me of something happened recently. I was given this bowl by my mother. My mom doesn’t give me things like this very often, so it was kind of special to me. A friend of mine came to visit and I realized that he was using that bowl to feed his dog and that the bowl got a little chip in it. I remember just kind of staring at him like, “Of all things in the house, why did you choose one of the most meaningful objects I own to use? Now it’s the dog bowl. I don’t want to eat my soup out of this dog bowl.” It wasn’t actually that big a deal, but it made me think about the way we consider objects. When something trespasses or somehow moves into a different category of use. It’s kind of like the way we think about things inside the body and outside of it. Blood inside your body is fine, but anything in the body that comes outside… oh my god, don’t touch it. Blood, poop, spit, whatever. I guess I do think about that a lot, with things like abandoned houses for example. The invisible border between inside and outside…

In Search of the Perfect Double, 2017 (still). Video, color, sound. © Kaari Upson. Courtesy the artist, Massimo De Carlo, and Sprüth Magers. Photo: Marten Elder

I’ve always wanted to do a show called “The Boneyard.” I didn’t know what this term meant until I went to this place looking for this particular type of L.A. fencing from the 1970s that I was trying to find. The guy was like, “We don’t have that, but you can go look in the boneyard.” I was like, “What the fuck is the boneyard?” So, we venture out into this area—the boneyard—which is the zone that’s not worthy of being cared for. It’s a wasteland of junk. It’s where something goes when it is no longer really valuable but for some reason you can’t throw it out. It doesn’t go away. It goes to the boneyard. The boneyard is a dead object place. For some reason, you decide when something is totally just trash or when it should go instead to the boneyard and just stay there. It’s like a step removed from trash because it might potentially somehow still have some sort of unknown value.

I guess when people look at my sculptures—the couches and mattresses, in particular—they can conjure that same kind of idea. There are things that people often put out on the street because they just don’t have a facility or the money to call bulk trash pickup. These objects go into this weird liminal space. They started a new thing in L.A. where people can refurbish mattresses as long as they somehow clean the springs or something. That’s actually become a thing now. People are now collecting them and seeing them as being worth something. In New York, when you see a mattress on the street you just think bedbugs and go the opposite direction. I guess I’ve just spent a long time looking at stuff that is often valueless to other people and maybe that did have an effect on my work. When I was a kid we’d often go into these abandoned, derelict houses and explore. You’d see how the weather—the outside—would eventually make its way inside. The spaces get invaded by kids and animals. That barrier between inside/outside is never stable. I guess it’s both something I overly look at in my work and also disregard. It’s both the most important thing and the least important thing.


Recluse Brown, 2015–16 (still). Four-channel video installation, sound; 32:19 min. Dimensions variable. © Kaari Upson. Courtesy the artist and Sprüth Magers

I spoke to a painter recently who said, “No matter what ideas I have or what I’m exploring, the end result is going to be a painting.” As an artist who works in a variety of mediums and materials, for whom the process can literally go in any direction it wants to go, the level of possibility is almost daunting.

I was a painter for many, many years. I was a painter as an undergrad and when I went back to get my MFA I was also making videos, which I never really showed anyone. Then at some point someone saw one of the videos and was like, “There it is.” and I was l was all, “Oh, come on. This is what I should have been doing all along?” I used to be very jealous of painters because the specificity of it. I’m like, “Really? That’s it? Everything gets funneled through that?” Now I realize how difficult that is. In a weird way, it’s harder.

Now I let any idea dictate the medium, meaning whatever medium needs to fulfill the idea, I’ll go toward it, generally even more so if it’s a material I’ve never worked with because the unknown it’s so important. Staying really alert to the unknown, not faking it, but really being in an awkward situation where you do not know what’s going to happen, is crucial. You need to not just do that in terms of the materials, but you also have to do it in terms of the concept. It is frustrating. It means that at all times in my studio I feel generally lost. When I’m out in the field making a video or taking in images, I think of myself as a recorder. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m recording anything and everything that I decide that is my subject. More often than not it’s actually not even the subject, but the spaces between the subjects. I record that space and fill in the gaps. I do it really pathologically.

The only thing that really grounds me in the process is going back to the studio and drawing. I’ve been drawing all my life. It’s the ground underneath me. Otherwise I feel so chaotic that I would have no space to contemplate. I think of it as a meditative space, a very deep thinking space. Sometimes when you just go to that non-language zone where you’re just filling in a gray, but you’re doing it for six hours straight, that’s when the real thinking happens. Without it I couldn’t go into these other spaces.


Event horizon, 2017. Graphite, ink, and gesso on paper. 40 1/2 x 72 1/2 in (102.9 x 184.2 cm).Courtesy the artist, Massimo De Carlo, and Sprüth Magers.

You are a professional, working artist who shows work in big spaces. When your creative outlet eventually also becomes your job and your livelihood, how do you manage that in a healthy way?

It’s complicated. It can change your practice in negative ways, but it can change it in positive ways too. I worked in complete utter darkness from the ages of 16 to 32. Nobody ever saw what I was doing. I tell everybody who ever works for me, “You shouldn’t want to be out there too quick.” The only reason I have the intuition that I do now is because I was left alone for so long. I was kind of forced through going to art school to actually show my work and I do see the advantages of that. You can’t stay in the darkness. Actually bringing it to an engaged conversation is what makes the work light up, in some weird way.

If a young artist comes to you and says: “I’m really feeling stuck” or “I don’t know what to do next,” what do you tell them?

I have thought about this a few times over the years. Sometimes artists I’ve known get frustrated, and you into the studio and realize that the work just isn’t good enough. When I say the work’s not good enough, it’s usually because they’re investing so much time about what’s not happening, they’re really just not making the work better. It’s very easy to get caught up into the business side of it, there’s so much outside judgment and it’s very easy to get caught up in the talk about who’s being looked at and who’s not.

I never thought about those things, even when I was in grad school. I was there to get my degree so I could teach. I was surrounded by a lot of other people who were very occupied with what gallery they were going to get. My advice would always be to not care about any of that, and to honestly just care about what the work’s doing. There’s this old Bruce Nauman quote where he said something like, “Even if you’re just standing on one leg in a video for two hours, if you give it 100%, something’s gonna happen.”

I kind of follow that rule, even when I’m making five videos that I think suck and I don’t know what’s making it not happen for me, I trust the system. Sometimes it means that maybe I am preoccupied with making a good video, whatever a “good” video is, and then I get lost in it. If I just keep going and trust my process, later I can usually say: “Oh I see, all of that bad work was leading to this moment, so now let’s just do it.” It’s almost always at that point of exhaustion when the breakthrough happens, but that’s when you give it 100%.


Untitled (1000 cans), 2015. Aluminum. 1,000 parts, each 5 x 2 1/4 in (12.7 x 5.7 cm). © Kaari Upson. Courtesy the artist, Massimo De Carlo, and Sprüth Magers

But do you find it’s important to take breaks?

No. I’m trying to do it right now, I’m starting to take a day break, and something inside me is like: “No.” I have never taken a break. I think some people work urgently, and other people don’t, and neither one is better. I just happen to work with great urgency. I’ve always worked that way. Even when I worked in a restaurant, I worked with great urgency. I always rushed through things and got it done, so it’s just my way of working.

I’m trying to take a little break right now, like four days off, because my daughter has four days off of school, but I find it so hard. Even when I’m trying to unplug, I’m really not. If I’m watching a dumb reality show, I’m still writing down weird bits of language that I might want to use in a video or something. I can’t stop. Even when I cook lunch for everybody at the studio, I’m somehow still in the studio and involved. So for me, I don’t need breaks. I would love to make some watercolors, that would be a break for me. Like five months to sit around with a table and not have to sweep the studio and move big objects and deal with people. That would be a break, but I’d still be making something.

When you work with this kind of urgency all the time, what saves you from burning out?

I don’t know! I have no idea. I’ve always been like this. Everybody says I’m burning the candle on both ends, and I always worry about that. What’s going to happen when you age and things slow down and your body just doesn’t work as well? The idea that the energy would slow down kind of freaks me out, so maybe that’s where the urgency comes from. I think maintaining a sense of urgency is good. You want to make all the things you can, while you can.

I’m trying to start yoga. I have a big garden now, so I’m going to plant enough food to feed the entire block. I feel like I’m going to grow every vegetable we possibly can. If you think about that, that’s not actually relaxing; it’s a lot of work. People say that gardening is the closest you can get to painting because one thing leads to another leads to another and then you’re just going: “Oh look at that over there!” and then the growth is right in front of you. Artichokes are coming out, like 20 of them, from one plant that’s been taking six months to get there. Suddenly there’s a painting that you can eat.


Who Is Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue, 2014. Urethane, pigment, and aluminum. 85 1/2 x 78 x 30 3/4 in (217 x 198 x 78 cm). © Kaari Upson. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Megan Bartley-Matthews

KAARI UPSON: GOOD THING YOU ARE NOT ALONE is currently on view at NYC’s New Museum.

Five Recommendations from Kaari Upson:

Encyclopedia of Postmodernism (Routledge World Reference) 1st Edition. Charles E. Winquist (Author, Editor), Victor E. Taylor (Editor)

“Taking the Waters” aka Water therapy. In L.A. we have the Korean spas but even at home I like doing the hot-to-cold-to-hot thing till your heart pounds and you sweat.

Recipe to your favorite comfort meal. You should be able to make this no matter where you are. Learn from your grandmother or practice it from online. Mine is:

Bean & Cheese Burrito As follows: Bag dry pinto beans soaked in water all night. Strain, then boil with onion, garlic (2 cloves), salt and jalapeno peppers for 4 hours or until soft. Fry in hot oil in a pan. Fry. Refry. Grate some cheese (mild cheddar). Buy flour tortillas. Put beans and cheese in warmed tortilla. Serve with hot sauce and sour cream.

Asking people close to you to make you a playlist. Every day I learn about something new from the people I work with. My standard playlist will start with:

Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” - Willie Nelson
Set if Off” - Strafe
Eighties” - Killing Joke

A contact for a vicious lawyer