The prodigious, media-spanning scope of Upson’s conceptual practice is evident even in her earliest body of work: The Larry Project (2005–12)—a vast compendium of drawings, sculptures, videos and performances—takes as its point of departure a clandestine visit to a burned-down house in her parents’ neighborhood in San Bernardino, the artist’s hometown. Though Upson never met the house’s former occupant (whom she later called “Larry”) she reconstructs the life she imagines he led, fueled by sex, wealth and fantasy, from the home furnishings, photographs and diaries he abandoned. In addition to paintings, sculptures and drawings—including a full-size “Larry” doll who makes regular appearances—Upson’s project comprises videos and installations in which the artist herself appears wearing homemade silicone prostheses of breasts and genitalia in a nod to her muse’s real-life visits to the Playboy Mansion.
Subsequent bodies of work, which have likewise woven together reality and fantasy, include her celebrated sculptures made of silicone, latex, urethane and fiberglass, cast from mattresses, sofas and other domestic objects and painted in a range of vivid tones; as well as MMDP (My Mother Drinks Pepsi) (2014–17) inspired by Upson’s mother who enjoyed a Pepsi every day. MMDP comprises complex sculptures made of Pepsi cans reminiscent of ancient artifacts—an effect created by filling the empty soda containers with liquid aluminum so that their surface looks charred—as well as videos that feature the artist among the aisles of Costco megastores where her mother shopped. Throughout these projects, drawings often provide the springboard for accompanying sculptural works. Large-scale and reminiscent of detailed journals, Upson’s drawings are filled with precisely rendered images and text, and they can take years to complete as the artist repeatedly returns to them to add visual, temporal and intellectual layers to their lush surfaces.
The scale and ambition of Upson’s projects have steadily expanded, culminating in room-sized installations blending set-like structures, sculptures, performative videos and sound. For the 2019 Venice Biennale, she recreated her mother’s childhood dollhouse and that of a friend by enlarging them to over-life-size scale. The resulting installation, There is No Such Thing as Outside (2017–19), offered a meditation on the self and the other and the insistent pull of nostalgia. Upson’s exhibition Go Back the Way You Came at Kunsthalle Basel (2019) similarly transformed the exhibition space into a weighty, multi-partite homage to another loaded object: the felled tree outside her childhood home. In both bodies of work, disquieting videos feature performances by the artist and a second woman, each made up to approximate each other’s faces, as they compulsively repeat fragments of speech and revisit repressed memories and traumas.
Overall, Upson’s work considers the overlaps, fissures and disjunctions between our interior worlds and exterior reality, not just conceptually, but also through her embodied process of casting, “skinning” and inverting objects. Embracing quasi-archaeological, forensic strategies, the artist creates uncanny, layered scenarios with the power to surface repressed desires and memories—both personal and collective—with unexpected force. Her work evokes radically destabilized subjects and presents a critical portrait of late-capitalist American culture with its many fetishes, obsessions, neuroses and repressed fantasies.