The art of neighborly obsession

Special to The Times

Imagine that Vermeer has been transported to a downtown Los Angeles loft, far from the dank studio in the Netherlands he frequented three centuries or so ago. No longer does embryonic, 17th century technology limit the information his portraits can impart about their subjects -- a celestial globe on a table, say, doubling as the artist’s tool to show the painting’s subject was an astronomer.

Let’s say instead that Vermeer is a fan of the forensic TV series “CSI” and has figured out how to take fingerprints off the globe and have them analyzed, or that he has sent the astronomer’s notations to a handwriting analyst, who has determined that the scientist is unable to release his considerable anxiety through sex.

Disturbingly revelatory? Perhaps. But such arguably invasive tools are available to a resourceful portrait artist of the Information Age. And in her one-woman debut after art school, Kaari Upson uses those techniques and others to help rewrite the book on contemporary portraiture in an installation on view at the Hammer Museum, which runs through Feb. 17.

The installation, part of the Hammer Projects series displaying the work of emerging artists, is Upson’s multimedia exploration of the persona and psyche of a man she has never met. Upson, who earned her MFA from the California Institute of the Arts in May, calls her subject “Larry,” which isn’t his real name, to circumvent invasion-of-privacy issues.


Using drawing, painting, photos, video, puppetry and plenty of imagination, Upson weaves a somewhat chaotic, multidimensional image of her parents’ former neighbor in San Bernardino, seeded with shards of information -- photos, a journal -- she found in his abandoned home. Then, underlining the truism that reality is in the eye of the beholder, she introduces paintings, photos and videos of herself discussing the neighbor and merging with the images she has created of him, even going so far as to wear the head of a Larry puppet as a mask.

“I find it helpful to think of the Hammer project as a work of portraiture, a biopic perhaps, if in another medium,” says Thomas Lawson, dean of CalArts’ School of Art. “But not necessarily the portrait of a real person. There is some sort of factual basis to the story, but also a lot of fantasy. In a way, the work unfolds as more of a self-portrait -- the obsessive unraveling of leads and connections. The artist goes so deeply into her subject that she becomes him, taking his face for hers. So maybe there’s something about the cannibalism of the artist involved in telling stories of self and others.”

He’s her inspiration

Recently, Upson, 35, discussed her still-evolving project in a conference room at the Hammer. The tall, willowy artist wore no makeup, and her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail that was more of an afterthought than a hairdo. One line of inquiry about Larry led to another and another, she said, unfurling an artistic journey that seemed as involved and multilayered as a Rube Goldberg machine. Indeed, the Los Angeles-based artist made a rather jumbled first impression on the curator of her show, Ali Subotnick, during a talent scouting visit to CalArts. Upson “seemed a little nuts, high- strung, like a cheerleader on speed,” Subotnick wrote in the brochure accompanying the exhibit.

Upson dates the project’s beginning to October 2003, when the Old Fire engulfed a swath of Southern California around San Bernardino. During a middle-of-the night visit to make sure her parents’ home was OK -- it was -- she spotted the abandoned house across the street.

“The fire department had broken into the back to make sure there was no interior fire, so I decided to go in,” she says. “My intention was to photograph and document this house I’d always heard about but had never seen, nor had I ever seen anyone who lived in it.”

That was because Upson had spent much of her 20s in New York, bouncing between art schools and romantic relationships. During that time, the mysterious neighbor had given the neighborhood plenty of grist for the rumor mill. He was known for throwing messy, loud parties at his immense, 11-bedroom home, which sported a Bel Air-friendly tennis court and pool, an oddity in this rural, relatively poor part of town.

“He was like the poor man’s Hugh Hefner, who’d re-created the scene,” Upson says.

An admitted addict of TV crime procedurals like “Law & Order” and “CSI,” the artist had been working on a project dealing with crime scenes, so she entered the house with a digital camera to poke around. The project sprang from the new direction her work had taken at CalArts, where, for her first assignment, she had collected every love letter she’d received. Something clicked, and she turned to variations on archiving pieces of text.

“I saw debris,” she says. “I saw the residue of someone’s life -- a desk, filing cabinets open, little kids’ toys, even though there were no children living there as far as I knew, and boxes and boxes of junk.”

Sorting through the detritus she took away stayed on Upson’s to-do list until the house really did burn down two years later. A video of the fire shot by a neighbor eventually became part of the installation.

At this point, however, Upson still didn’t know what she wanted to do with Larry’s belongings. So for a couple of months, she tried to jump-start her imagination by carrying around the jewel of his trove, a green journal he’d used for recording thoughts and dreams.

That is, until she lost it.

“I’d left it in some classroom, and it destroyed me, because I felt that I couldn’t start this anymore,” she says, waving her hands. “It was crucial. I had so little anyway. How could I reconstruct this man’s story? Then I realized, it was all about the gaps. It was about the fact that that information was gone, and I had the memory of it and my ideas. I started seeing the project as not really what I had, but what I didn’t have, and I started reconstructing it from there.”

Upson began by mapping her thoughts, as she puts it, making finely textured drawings of words and images that sprang into her head in a frenzy, with arrows forming connections between ideas. She quickly began to insert herself into the mix, drawing erotic images of herself with Larry as well as musings on phrases such as “propinquity effect . . . the tendency for people to form friendships and romantic relationships with those who they encounter.” Since she never actually encountered him, she sewed together what she calls a poppet -- a doll used for witchcraft -- as his stand-in. In a video at the entrance of the installation, Upson, dressed in white scrubs, blue rubber gloves and a red-and-white gingham mask, tells the story of the project while she takes off the poppet’s head and puts it on herself.

“What started happening was that I filled the gaps,” she says. “It has so little to do with him at this point. It’s all about me.”

Going beyond Calle

Upson cites as an influence the French artist Sophie Calle, who began exploring the boundary between public and private life by making surveillance an art form. For her notorious 1983 work “Address Book,” Calle interviewed people whose names were in a book she’d found about its owner. He threatened to sue her for invasion of privacy and retaliated by demanding that a newspaper publish a nude photo he’d found of her.

Upson takes Calle’s ideas further by creating an intimate space between herself and her subject, but she has been scrupulous about avoiding the legal land mines faced by her predecessor. On the advice of CalArts faculty, Upson consulted an intellectual property lawyer at the outset, and she has carefully kept Larry’s identity secret. Even the subject doesn’t know he’s the subject.

That hasn’t stopped people from wondering how her husband, former “Will & Grace” writer-producer Kirk Rudell, feels about his wife’s obsessive thoughts involving another man.

The very idea makes Upson laugh. “Could there be real jealousy from a spouse about a phantom? Probably. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll ask him. I’m sure there has been some sort of harm done. But he’s handling it well. He’s helpful at every step. Right now.”


Kaari Upson

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Feb. 17

Price: $5

Contact: (310) 443-7000,