Kaari Upson, the California-born artist who used drawing, sculpture, and installation to mine her personal memories and the collective cultural psyche, has died. She was 49.
The news was confirmed by a spokesperson for Upson’s gallery, White Cube. The cause of death was metastatic cancer.
“Kaari was a force of nature and a beautiful human being,” said Jay Jopling, White Cube’s founder, in a statement. “Her work powerfully skewered the fallacies of the American dream.”
Representatives from the artist’s other gallery, Sprüth Magers, did not immediately respond to Artnet News’s request for comment.
Upson was born in 1972 in San Bernardino, a mid-sized, sun-baked suburb east of Los Angeles marred by a preponderance of fires, mudslides, and other environmental disasters that cast a long shadow over the artist’s work.
“I grew up in a constant state of something coming from the outside that you couldn’t control, and everything could be gone at any minute,” Upson told friend and actor Josh Lucas in a 2017 interview. “By the time I was 7, five houses on the street completely burned down. The guy on the one side of us died in a fire and their house never got rebuilt. It just stayed like that.”
The artist earned both her BFA and MFA from the California Institute of Arts in 2004 and 2007, respectively. While still a student, she ventured into an abandoned house across the street from her childhood home where she discovered a trove of personal materials mysteriously left behind by a man she never met.
Upson began incorporating those materials into her practice during grad school, beginning what would become her best-known body of work, The Larry Project (2005–12), a protracted, protean series of performances, sculptures, videos, and other artworks based on the imaginary life of the unknown man.
Larry was cast as a mildly wealthy, sex-loving libertine equally into new age wellness and trips to the Playboy Mansion. Upson even created a life-sized doll of her subject which she subsequently used for roleplaying, alternately pretending to be Larry’s mother and lover. She simulated sex with the puppet, then decapitated it.
Upson’s later works used found items to spin Lynchian narratives blending the artist’s own history with fantasy, often critiquing capitalism and the promise of the American dream along the way.
In 2016, she debuted a series called “MMDP (My Mother Drinks Pepsi)“ (2014–17) at Sprüth Magers in Berlin. Inspired by her mother’s love of the titular soft drink, the series included sculptures made from fossilized cans and a series of videos that featured an unnamed woman (played by the artist herself) wandering the aisles of Costco.
Solo shows of the Upson’s projects have been mounted at the Kunsthalle Basel (2019), the New Museum in New York (2017), and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (2007), among others. Her work was also included in the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, the Triennale di Milano in 2018, and the Whitney Biennial in 2017.