Grunge music is about as universally synonymous with modern-day Seattle as Starbucks and Microsoft, and no band symbolizes this movement more readily than Nirvana. The late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain is easily the most recognizable icon from this period, famous for his heart wrenching lyrics, aggressive left-handed guitar playing, scraggly blond locks and premature demise.
Cobains life and untimely death resonated with a generation of young people around the world like few artists of recent memory, symbolizing the age-old struggle against authority, the pitfalls of not fitting into societal norms, and the artistic conundrum of maintaining integrity in the face of commercial and popular success. Consequently, visual artists from around the globe have been drawn to his story and image, making art that teases out a variety of themes associated with Cobains meteoric career.
On view at the Seattle Art Museum
from May 13 through September 6, 2010, the exhibition Kurt will reveal the extent to which his music and biography continue to exert a strong pull on our collective consciousness. Through nearly 80 objects, from painting and sculpture to video, photography, collage and sound, Kurt will explore themes of freedom, longing, loss, desire and confusion. While these explorations and reactions all originate from ruminations about Kurt Cobain, they often lead into territory that is anything but one-dimensional. International in scope, Kurt will include works by artists including Elizabeth Peyton, Douglas Gordon, Rodney Graham, Gillian Wearing, Slater Bradley and Daniel Guzman, as well as Northwest artists such as Scott Fife, Gretchen Bennett, Jeffry Mitchell, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Charles Peterson, Alice Wheeler and Hadley + Maxwell.
Titled simply with the musicians first name, Kurt will test the rockers ascendance into the pantheon of one-named American superstars such as Marilyn and Elvis. Kurt was curated by Michael Darling, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at SAM, and will be arranged thematically to include many different approaches and reactions to Cobains legacy. Most of the works date from 1994 and after, clearly suggesting that Kurts death motivated these artists, and so many others, to come to terms with his legacy, says Darling. What is truly amazing, however, is how recent a lot of the work is, as Kurts story continues to be relevant, meaningful and far-reaching. It is so clearly resonant in the Northwest, but it is also a global phenomenon.
Portraiture and Documentary
Some works in the exhibition approach Cobain via the traditional genre of portraiture. Works by Elizabeth Peyton, Gretchen Bennett, Daniel Guzman, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and others, are in this category. The artists, however, incorporate more contemporary conceptions of portraiture, inflected with the obsession of fans and the profusion of electronic media.
Photographs by Charles Peterson and Alice Wheeler reflect a more documentary ethos. Petersons photographs from Nirvana concerts capture Cobains development into a star. Alice Wheelers body of work includes iconic images of Kurt during the prime of his career, but also documents the continued trajectory of his influence. On view in Kurt are several photographs by Wheeler that record the ardor of younger and younger devotees to Kurts life and music.
Cobain famously explored and struggled with the fluidity of identity in his own life. This is reflected in the exhibition with works by Sam Durant, Slater Bradley, Douglas Gordon and Jeffry Mitchell, who freely entwine images of themselves with those of Kurt and other popular cultural figures. For instance, the boundary separating fandom from mimicry and even impersonation is explored by Bradley in photographs, as well as in a video installation from his Doppelganger Trilogy in which he hired an actor (who bears a resemblance to the artist as well as Cobain) to pose and perform as Kurt. This and other works suggest the malleability of identity and an ever-shifting definition of ego.
The Mythology of Kurt
Any study of Cobain is infused with musings on his tragic suicide. The fact that it was fueled by drugs and occurred within the arena of rock and roll makes it all the more ripe for mythologizing. An installation by Banks Violette comprised of sculpture, framed graphite drawings and a wall drawing delves into this dark territory. Violettes installation conjures images of death and the occult, while referencing the too-easy equation of rock lyrics and suicide as popularized in a judicial case involving the heavy metal band Judas Priest. Other approaches to the Cobain narrative which involve the mournful and melancholy include a gallery in Kurt shared by the photographs of Melanie Schiff, a photograph by the collaborative duo of Joe Mama-Nitzberg and Marc Swanson, paintings by Jordan Kantor and an altered book by Richard Hawkins. Rodney Grahams elegiac media installation Aberdeen is likewise a paean to Cobain and his roots in the downtrodden coastal city where he was raised, as well as one of many works where Graham entertains his own yearnings to be a rock star.