Kurt, Art Papers
"Kurt" at Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, WA
Originally published in Art Papers

In the past two decades, no artist—in any media—has embodied the archetypal Romantic with the same feverish conviction as Kurt Cobain. His band Nirvana pilfered the conventions of pop and punk rock, but Cobain imbued those familiar forms with vividly estranging imagery and scalding emotion that veered from barely-there whispers to throat-shredding invective. As his audience and influence grew, he worried that the principles he built his art on were simply lost in translation, until—saddled by the pressures of stardom, an unraveling marriage, and escalating heroin addiction—he took his life in the spring of 1994. Certainly, Nirvana altered the trajectory of popular music for years after Cobain's suicide, but the Seattle Art Museum's Kurt, which gathers a range of work inspired by Cobain from the early 1990s to the present, evidences the seismic impact of Cobain, in particular, on an entire generation of visual artists [May 13—September 6, 2010]. That Nirvana's legacy would be rooted in the visual as much as the sonic is not entirely surprising. Between the band's iconic album art and music videos as well as its ubiquitous media presence, Nirvana was an imminently visual entity. At its most fascinating, Kurt illustrates how those points of mass visibility resonate individually. That is, when we negotiate personal relationships with public figures—foisting emotions and ideologies on the permissive surfaces of mediated images—that process discloses more about us than the objects of our scrutiny.

Much of the work included in the show takes a reverential tact with its subject, but such straightforward attempts to memorialize are often leaden and unrevealing. Jack Pierson's letter sculpture,
Kurt Cobain, 1994, which spells out Cobain's name in mismatched signage fragments, asserts an inherent importance to his subject, but explains nothing else. Likewise, Elizabeth Peyton's portrait, Zoe's Kurt, 1995, offers a stylized interpretation of a press image that is perfunctorily doting and heartfelt. More affecting are those works that engage Cobain as a fellow artist, rather than a grunge pinup. Joe Mama-Nitzberg and Marc Swanson's photograph Untitled (Kurt Cobain), 2009, presents a funeral bouquet of "angel's hair and baby's breath" wrapped in cellophane, using an impressionistic lyric from the band's single "Heart-shaped Box" as a readymade symbol for frailty and delicate beauty. Jennifer West similarly dredges Cobain's lyrics from abstract figuration in her Nirvana Alchemy Film, 2007, using lyric fragments from various songs as literal directives for physically treating the film: She soaks it in lithium mineral hot springs and pennyroyal tea; douses it in mud; and sops it in bleach, cherry antacids, and laxatives. Amazingly, all that abuse to the film—which captures the artist and her son bouncing on a trampoline—mimics the corrosive aesthetic of the grunge music video era.

Several artists in the exhibition sidestep overt adulation by attempting to locate Cobain within a broader cultural context, as a sacrificial figure whose commitment to artistic idealism literally consumes him. In Douglas Gordon's tiny photograph
Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe, 1996, the artist triggers an avalanche of associations by simply donning a platinum-blond wig. In a single move, Cobain is tangled up with ideas of artistic revolution, murderous violence, and tragic death—all concepts that, figuratively or literally, relate to a mythic understanding of the musician. Sam Durant's installation Upside Down and Backwards, Completely Unburied, 1999, further identifies Cobain as a cultural type and, with mock scientific flair, maps him within a constellation of artists that includes Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and Robert Smithson. Though there are logical spokes between these artists (Neil Young, for instance, has long been regarded "the godfather of grunge" and a lyric from his "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" concluded Cobain's suicide note), unpacking the intersecting significations is a knotty undertaking. Fitting to this tangle of meanings, Durant presents a scale model of Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed with six speakers orbiting the structure, simultaneously playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter," and Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)." Rather than illustrate the overlapping—or "harmonious"—goals of these artists or uncover some truth about them (as in the symbolic reclamation of Smithson's sculpture), the piece breaks down into utter cacophony, burying itself in discord. Suddenly, these figures of artistic revolution are recast as emblems of compromised ideals, the rallying cry of their music reduced to noise. If Durant's installation demonstrates a cynicism in artistic movements to deliver on their transcendent claims, there is also an insistent hope buried within that disappointment. The artists referenced in his installation may have all ultimately succumb to obsolescence—whether death or artistic irrelevance—but that fact does not prevent their audiences from suspending their disbelief, or keep them from singing along to words that feel nearly like their own.