Humanizing Kurt Cobain through the art of those he inspired

SAM exhibit brings the grunge artist to life through rockstar photos, haunting paintings, and, naturally, some remarkable audio.
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"Kurt Cobain at MTV's Live and Loud, Pier 63"

SAM exhibit brings the grunge artist to life through rockstar photos, haunting paintings, and, naturally, some remarkable audio.

In the song 'ꀜModern Art,'ꀝ by British rock group Art Brut, Eddie Argos exclaims, 'ꀜModern art makes me want to rock out.'ꀝ That statement more or less sums up how I felt after spending nearly two hours viewing Seattle Art Museum'ꀙs 'ꀜKurt,'ꀝ an exhibit that celebrates Kurt Cobain'ꀙs worldwide influence on pop culture and art.

Curated by Michael Darling, who will be leaving SAM in July to be the chief curator at Chicago'ꀙs Museum of Contemporary Art, 'ꀜKurt'ꀝ perfectly bridges the worlds of pop culture, music and art. This is an exhibit not just for fans of fine art. Anyone who has been touched by Nirvana'ꀙs music can find something to appreciate here. The installation, which runs through Sept. 6, features nearly 80 works of various media: sculptures, paintings, photographs, and more, each expressing different aspects of Cobain'ꀙs life and how he impacted the lives of others.

'ꀜKurt'ꀝ isn'ꀙt a collection of memorabilia like you might find at Experience Music Project (which will have its own Nirvana exhibit in 2011), and it isn'ꀙt a display of Cobain'ꀙs own artwork. 'ꀜKurt'ꀝ is an exhibit that takes a very public and tragic figure and humanizes him in a way his own music never could. And like all good art, almost every piece on display makes you think. Featuring artists from around the world, "Kurt" shows that Cobain wasn't just a beloved Northwest icon, his influence had a global reach.

The danger and tragedy of Cobain'ꀙs life is represented throughout 'ꀜKurt,'ꀝ with two of the more effective pieces being Jordan Kantor'ꀙs 2006 painting 'ꀜUntitled (Forensic Scene)'ꀝ and Banks Violette'ꀙs 'ꀜDead Star Memorial Structure (on their hands at last)'ꀝ from 2003. The former is an oil painting that evokes memories of the infamous photos of Cobain'ꀙs dead body inside the greenhouse where he killed himself. The latter is what looks like a devastated drum kit dipped in black tar. Pieces of the kit are deconstructed and strewn across a platform and pointy stalagmites poke through the floor. It conjures feelings of darkness, volatility and despair, all of which can be heard in Nirvana'ꀙs music.

There is also a remarkable audio collage that attempts to loosely tie Cobain'ꀙs death to the loss of innocence in the 1960s. The work, by Sam Durant, is part of a larger piece that includes graphite portraits of Cobain, Robert Smithson and others. Neil Young'ꀙs 'ꀜHey Hey, My My (Into the Black),'ꀝ part of which Cobain quoted in his suicide note ('ꀜIt'ꀙs better to burn out than to fade away'ꀝ), plays from one pair of speakers while 'ꀜGimme Shelter'ꀝ and 'ꀜSmells Like Teen Spirit'ꀝ play from two other pairs. The speakers are connected to stereos underneath a replica of Smithson'ꀙs "Partially Buried Woodshed," which he built after the Kent State massacre. Initially it is a bit jarring to hear the three songs played simultaneously, but once your ears adjust your mind makes the connection between the songs and their separate meanings to different generations. It all comes together quite nicely.

As excellent a tribute as 'ꀜKurt'ꀝ is, it's not without its flaws. Aside from being a musician, Cobain also expressed himself artistically by painting, drawing and making collages out of parts of baby dolls. While the purpose of 'ꀜKurt'ꀝ is to show the influence Cobain and his music had on artists worldwide, it would'ꀙve been nice to see some of Cobain'ꀙs own art.

Also, I found it slightly ironic that Microsoft co-sponsored the exhibit, given Nirvana's attitude toward huge corporations. Cobain, after all, once graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine wearing a shirt that read 'ꀜCorporate magazines still suck.'ꀝ But I'ꀙm not knocking SAM for finding a sponsor with deep pockets, nor Microsoft for contributing. And these are minor criticisms of what is a must-see exhibit not just for fans of Nirvana but for anyone who appreciates music, art and pop culture in general.

It is impossible to tell Cobain'ꀙs story without including Courtney Love, and Dario Robleto does that with his 1998 piece 'ꀜIt Sounds Like They Still Love Each Other to Me.'ꀝ Robleto melted down two vinyl records and used them to make earplugs. One earplug was cast out of Nirvana'ꀙs live album 'ꀜFrom the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah'ꀝ and the other was made out of 'ꀜLive Through This'ꀝ by Courtney Love'ꀙs band Hole. It'ꀙs the smallest piece of art in the exhibit and to me it seemed to say the most about Cobain in a very direct fashion, by connecting Kurt and Courtney in a rather touching piece of art.

In another display, a massive series of seven framed photos showing Cobain crashing Chad Channing'ꀙs drum kit greets visitors at the entrance of 'ꀜKurt.'ꀝ The photos, by Charles Peterson, are perhaps the most famous grunge images captured outside of Marc Jacobs'ꀙ Vogue fashion spread. Nine other Peterson photos are on display on a separate wall, each showing Cobain at various stages of his career. One shot shows Cobain during a candid moment alone on a bed playing an acoustic guitar. Another is of he and Love in Bellingham, while others show Cobain how most remember him, playing the role of rock star on stage. The series does a wonderful job of portraying Cobain as an icon, husband and vulnerable human being.

Peterson is one of two contributors to 'ꀜKurt'ꀝ who knew Cobain personally (the other is local photographer Alice Wheeler). So what does he think Kurt would think about 'ꀜKurt'ꀝ?

'ꀜIt'ꀙs tough to say because if he was still around this might not be here,'ꀝ Peterson said, hesitant to speculate. 'ꀜHe definitely would have appreciated the caliber of work on display. But he might be a little embarrassed if he was alive to have an homage like this. He was a certain generation'ꀙs outsider that just doesn'ꀙt have a place in society, and this does a good job of representing that.'ꀝ

If you go: "Kurt," showing through Sept. 6, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave. Seattle, 206-654-3121. Tickets cost $9-$15 and are available at the box office or online.


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