Before leaving for the opening of kurt at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), I played some Nirvana songs on my music player and thought about what I expected to see. Nirvana’s music in the late 80s and early 90s defined a generation. Kurt Cobain became the face of the stripped down sound and tortured aesthetic of grunge. His untimely death left a void in the lives of his fans and the culture at large. The SAM describes the show as an exhibit that “will make viewers wonder why and how Kurt’s face and gestures became so important to a generation.”
The five galleries contain 80 works of art, including photographs, drawings, videos, and sculptures that reflect the myriad ways in which Kurt’s life, art, and death influenced artists in Washington and beyond. of the. Although 16 years have passed since his death, many of the featured works date from 1994, suggesting that Kurt’s influence continues to this day.
In the first gallery, the installation by Maxwell + Hadley Standing Wave Session sets the tone for the exhibition. The twelve-sided foam room includes a free-standing studio – a taped carpet and a microphone in the center invite us inside. Loudspeakers project the sounds of an audience anticipating a performance – their rhythmic applause and excited screams play over the sounds of guitars tuning and microphone feedback. Visitors are encouraged to enter the hall, lit by a bald hanging light bulb, walk on the tape-covered carpet and perhaps stand behind the microphone and feel the excitement and pressure of the concert. Standing behind the microphone, one can peek in and see Charles Peterson’s seven large-scale black-and-white chromogenic prints capturing Kurt’s progression rushing into a drum kit. The grainy 4′ x 5′ photographs have been reproduced and enlarged specifically for the SAM. Peterson shot the pictures for Sub Pop Records during Nirvana’s early years, when they were still playing small venues, like the Rajis in Los Angeles. The viewer gets a viewer’s perspective, showing Kurt’s complete disregard for his bodily well-being.
On an opposite wall, Alice Wheeler’s intimate photography captures Kurt at the height of his glory. Taken after an MTV New Year performance, Kurt looks like the quintessential rock star; his hair is platinum blonde, he wears big red sunglasses, and his neck is adorned with red, blue, and green Christmas tinsel. As Cobain’s friend, Wheeler’s portrait and her three additional photographs in the exhibit come across as true expressions of love and loss. In Tent City, Seattle, Wheeler captures the influence Kurt continues to have on today’s youth. The photograph, taken in 1999 on a hill in Seattle, depicts a boy who took on Kurt’s look and traveled to Kurt’s town, but unfortunately failed to pursue fame and fortune.
In the next gallery, the sentiment is less about Kurt the Friend, and more about Kurt the Beloved Musician, or Kurdt, the persona Kurt created for his celebrity identity. Gretchen Bennett’s vividly colored pencil drawings are intense meditations on Kurt’s memory. Crafted from stills from movies, Bennett’s drawings capture fleeting moments in Kurt’s life and reveal a fan’s painstaking dedication. In one drawing, Kurt’s face is barely discernible from the pink and yellow crayon marks, each line of a different color clearly visible. In the center of the gallery, Evan Holloway’s flimsy, seemingly unfinished foam sculpture depicts Kurt bent over his guitar as he stands precariously above a paper drawing of an abyss. His body is barely held together by yellowing glue, perhaps suggesting Kurt’s fragile mental and physical state. Nearby, Elizabeth Peyton’s small feminized portrait of Kurt hangs on a freestanding silver wall. Similar to Andy Warhol golden marilynPayton’s portrait becomes a religious icon of fame.
As I wandered through the galleries I heard a cacophony of music – Nirvana intertwined with The Rolling Stones mixed with Neil Young. what was that? In the center of the third gallery, Sam Durant’s miniature replica of Robert Smithson’s sculpture Partially buried pyre (1970), a sculpture erected at Kent State University that later became a memorial for the Kent State shootings, serves as a makeshift sound system. Durant’s line mixes the music of these three bands to make an elaborate connection about fame, lyrics and untimely deaths. Neil Young wrote the song “Ohio” about the Kent State shooting, then Kurt quoted Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” in his suicide note – “Better to run out than fade away.” Durant also contributes to the exhibit with corresponding drawings showcasing his elaborate thought process regarding the interrelationship between Smithson, Cobain and Young. Nearby, Jeffry Mitchell’s portrayal as Kurt is arguably the exhibit’s hidden gem. Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain in the style of Jay Steensma features a skull wearing a blond wig amidst an profusely painted sea of gray. (Steensma was a “mystical” artist famous for his gray northwest landscape paintings).
As SAM discovered, you can’t create an exhibit about Kurt Cobain and his influence without referencing his suicide. In the next gallery, black and white invades the space. Judas Priest-inspired wall decals adorn the wall (reminiscent of the 1985 suicides attributed to hidden messages in Judas Priest’s lyrics). Banks Viollette apparently takes the broken drum kit from the Chris Paterson photo series and coats it in shiny black epoxy and attaches stalagmites to it. Around the sculpture, large graphite drawings emphasize the isolating and suffocating effects of celebrity. In a large drawing, Viollette fills the piece of paper with graphite – the center of the piece is a blinding white spotlight void. Viollette’s hand is present in the powerful indentations of the graphite pencil, again reminding the viewer of the pressure of fame.
The final gallery serves as a memorial – Joe Mama-Nitzberg and Marc Swanson’s photography of garlands of glass called “angel hair” intertwine with the baby’s breath. The photograph is from a series of flower arrangements that Mama-Nitzberg and Swanson have created to commemorate people who have had a significant impact on their lives, and the materials reference Nirvana’s lyrics from “Heart Shaped Box,” ” cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath.” Nearby, the eerily accurate bust of Kurt, Washington native Scott Fife, lies on the ground.Jordan Kantor’s forensic paintings of news photos from the day police discovered Kurt’s body are on the wall. behind the sculpture of Fife, and their simple style seems clinical and cold. Rodney Graham’s slideshow of Aberdeen passes nearby, each photo is a melancholy tribute to Kurt’s origin, a town that has only recently added ” Come As You Are” to its signage.
Seattle gave grunge to the world, and Kurt Cobain, the goofy left-handed guitarist from Aberdeen, WA, embodied the movement. kurt the exhibit seems to support this claim. kurt is awkward, and it’s sad, and it leaves us wondering, would Kurt have said “Come as you are?”
kurt is on display at the Seattle Art Museum from May 13 to September 6, 2010.