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DESTE 2022 Vol I: A posthumous tribute to Kaari Upson, Athens

Words by Andrea Goffo

Installation view, Kaari Upson: Never Enough
DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens.

What intimate and secret bonds can develop between an artist and a patron-collector? Two disparate projects presented in Greece this summer by the DESTE Foundation touch upon this complex question from alternate angles. Kaari Upson’s posthumous retrospective Never Enough in Nea Ionia, Athens, until October 27th, and Jeff Koons’ iconographic intervention Apollo at the Project Space Slaughterhouse in Hydra until October 31st allow DESTE’s founder and legendary collector Dakis Joannou the space to explore this phenomenon first-hand: the former in respectful homage, and the latter as a radical carte-blanche.

Click here to read DESTE 2022 Vol II: Jeff Koons’ Apollo in Hydra

Installation view, Kaari Upson: Never Enough DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, Athens.

In the book 2000 Words devoted to Kaari Upson and published by his foundation, Joannou wrote that “having a personal relationship with an artist is the best way to understand the work”. Both exhibitions prove that supporting artists means knowing them deeply, and allowing them to give voice and body to their utopian or dystopian dreams. It’s much more than just buying their works.

This becomes especially poignant when an artist dies prematurely, and when their hallucinatory visions were rooted in a body of work interpreted as enigmatic ‘open narratives’ that endlessly explored the dark side of the American dream. Upson died of cancer at age 51 in August 2021, leaving behind many sculptures, videos and drawings produced in a very prolific 15-year career and five series of new works. In the exhibition Never Enough, Joannou shows more than 30 pieces by Upson, from the photograph It’s Never Enough (2007) to some of her last works such as Portrait (Vain German) (2020) – part of a series painted with thick impasto and other materials on miniature canvases during the pandemic, also exhibited at the 2022 Venice Biennale. The show takes the form of a kaleidoscope of contradictory sensations and perceptions produced by a continual coming and going of the viewer’s gaze, as one moves among works arranged in space in no precise chronological order. Upson’s pieces are silhouetted against bright walls – colour planes that isolate their disturbing sculptural or two-dimensional shapes.

Installation view, Kaari Upson: Never Enough DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art (May 26 – October 27, 2022) Photo: George Sfakianakis

Installation view, Kaari Upson: Never Enough DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art (May 26 – October 27, 2022) Photo: George Sfakianakis

Installation view, Kaari Upson: Never Enough DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art (May 26 – October 27, 2022) Photo: George Sfakianakis

Installation view, Kaari Upson: Never Enough DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art (May 26 – October 27, 2022) Photo: George Sfakianakis

“Loss, death, experiencing that through the body; the inability to conceptually work through these things…. In a lot of my schooling, I dealt with questions of the abject. When something is outside the body it becomes disgusting, but when it’s inside it’s as natural as blood. Those issues are very ingrained in me,” Upson told Even magazine in 2017, condensing the meaning of her work into these few lines. Born in San Bernardino, California, in 1970, Upson obsessively carried out a lengthy investigation from 2007 to 2012 focused on a stranger, a mysterious and controversial neighbour of her family home, transformed by the artist into a palimpsest character called Larry. Titled The Larry Project, this enormous series of pieces was initiated by the artist when she was still a student at CalArts, starting with the recovery of personal effects saved from two fires belonging to the man. Like a detective or an ethnologist, she collected and documented dozens of photographs, private letters and legal documents and, like a mature artist, transformed these tattered materials into a creative magma that speaks of destruction, illness and failure. Some of these works, which include sculptures, installations, videos and drawings, are on display at the DESTE exhibition. Even years later, they never cease to function as a distorted mirror of Upson herself, who, during her long research, identified with this character or tried to live a desperate and fictional story of friendship, sex or love with him.

As stated by writer Audrey Wollen in Artforum, “So much of Kaari’s thinking was about folds and pockets, insides turning outside, outsides in. Walls glisten and dissolve. She discovered ways to cast the holes in things and pull them out into objecthood, crumpled hollows. The inside of buckets, the skin of a fireplace, obverse dollhouses, imaginary lovers. Absence was at hand, able to be touched, held, dragged, kissed. She sparked against the flint of lack, fearless”. We cannot help but perceive the artist’s absent body when we wander among her mattresses painted in electric greens, purples and blues, like Death Bed (2015) or Crib Diptych (2015), deformed and threatening armchairs, like Left Brace Erase, Back Brace Face (2016), doors reduced to distressing simulacra of themselves, and assemblages of cushions with enveloping genital forms as in Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue (2014). Yet at the same time, we experience her untamed drive to oppose destructive forces and, ultimately, death.

www.deste.gr

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