L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley
When photographer Larry Sultan was growing up, his mother hired a decorator to “cozy up” their new San Fernando Valley home with its marble floors and 12-foot fireplace. The decorator had red hair, tight pants and lipstick that always spread beyond the limits of her lips. She brought in shag carpets, candelabras, lots of gold leaf. So Sultan remembered when writing about the houses he saw in the 1990s while working on The Valley, a series of photographs tracking San Fernando’s biggest business.
The porn industry gravitates, it seems, toward the sort of homes with candelabras and fake chandeliers, like the “real mansion with an incredible view” a production assistant told Sultan he’d just love. “It’s been customized with dark wood paneling, overbearing stonework, marble counters and other features that give it the appearance of the ‘good life,’” Sultan wrote. “Wandering from room to room, I get the feeling that something went wrong, that the owners have left suddenly in the middle of the night.”
Kaari Upson grew up in San Bernardino not San Fernando; still, it’s the world of Sultan’s un-embarrassedly glitzy, vaguely smutty photographs I think of when walking through Upson’s exhibition at Overduin and Kite in Hollywood. The whole self-titled show is pink and black, made mostly of smoke, charcoal, latex and wax. The black is aggressive and self-effacing, like on the smoke-darkened aluminum panels that hang in the back of the second gallery. They’re smeary and angsty and look like what could’ve resulted if a chain-smoking diva set her house on fire with a wayward cigarette, then wandered through the rubble, trying helplessly to rub away the grime now coating her many mirrors. The pink is fleshy but industrial. Upson’s long latex fence poles and chandeliers drooping from the gallery ceiling, all painted in that fleshy hue, could have come from the same house, damaged in the fire then left to melt in hot summer sun.
Yet in this show, there’s an elegance and tastefulness to the presentation that contradicts the ruined kitsch of Upson’s objects. No red-headed decorator in overzealous lipstick would space sculptures so evenly or think to juxtapose the stocky wall-hanging black rectangles, each shaped by impressions of the artist’s body (“Fisting and Knees,” “Head and Knees” are subtitles), with melting pink that loops down from above.
What role does such tastefulness play? Does it give Upson and us a safety net, assuring us that it’s art we’re looking at? “Ambiguity is a luxury,” said artist Collier Schorr a few years back, and Upson indulges in that luxury, staying in an in-between state, referencing a world of faux-finery and emotional roller-coasters while still falling back on the confident, visual restraint of a minimalist. But that’s an observation, not really a criticism–ambiguity is something art makes space for.