Modern art makes me want to rock out: Seattle Art Museum’s Cobain-themed ‘Kurt’

Earlier this week I attended a media preview of Seattle Art Museum’s “Kurt” exhibit which focuses on the impact Kurt Cobain’s life had on the lives of others. Below is my unedited take on the exhibit that I wrote for Crosscut.

During “Modern Art,” a song by British rock group Art Brut, Eddie Argos exclaims “Modern art makes me want to rock out.” That statement more or less sums up how I felt after spending nearly two hours viewing Seattle Art Musuem’s “Kurt,” an exhibit that celebrates Kurt Cobain’s worldwide influence on the world of pop culture and art.

Curated by Michael Darling, who will be leaving SAM in July to be the chief curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “Kurt” 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’s music can find something to appreciate here. The installation, which opens today and can be seen until Sept. 6, features nearly 80 works of various mediums ranging from sculptures to paintings to photographs and more, each expressing different aspects of Cobain’s life and how he impacted the lives of others.

“Kurt” isn’t a collection of memorabilia like you might find at the Experience Music Project, (which will have its own Nirvana exhibit in 2011) and it isn’t a display of Cobain’s own artwork. “Kurt” 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.

The danger and tragedy of Cobain’s life is represented throughout “Kurt” with two of the more effective pieces being Jordan Kantor’s 2006 painting “Untitled (Forensic Scene)” and Banks Violette’s “Dead Star Memorial Structure (on their hands at last)” from 2003. The former is an oil painting that harkens memories of the infamous photos of Cobain’s 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’s music.

There is also a remarkable audio collage that attempts to loosely tie Cobain’s 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’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” part which Cobain quoted in his suicide note (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”), plays from one pair of speakers while “Gimme Shelter” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” play from two other pairs. The speakers are connected to stereos underneath a replica of Smithson’s “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 “Kurt” is it isn’t 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 “Kurt” is to show the influence Cobain and his music had on artists worldwide it would’ve been nice to see some of Cobain’s own art on display. Also, it’s a small quirk but I found it slightly humorous that Microsoft is a co-sponsor of the exhibit.

I’m not knocking SAM for finding a sponsor with deep pockets or Microsoft for contributing to the museum (please contribute more if you can Microsoft), but anyone with knowledge of Nirvana lore has to smirk a bit at the irony “Kurt” being co-sponsored by a corporate behemoth. This is after all an exhibit focusing on the man who once graced the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a shirt that read “Corporate magazines still suck.” However, theses are extremely minor blemishes on what is a must-see exhibit for not just fans of Nirvana but anyone who is a fan of music, art and pop culture in general.

It is impossible to tell Cobain’s story without including Courtney Love and Dario Robleto does that with his 1998 piece “It Sounds Like They Still Love Each Other to Me.” Robleto used two vinyl records and turned them into earplugs. One earplug was cast out of Nirvana’s live album “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah” and the other was made out of “Live Through This” by Courtney Love’s band Hole. It’s 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.

Elsewhere a massive series of seven frames of Cobain crashing Chad Channing’s drum kit from photographer Charles Peterson greets visitors at the entrance of “Kurt.” The photos are perhaps the most famous grunge images captured outside of Marc Jacob’s 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 rockstar 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 “Kurt” who knew Cobain personally (the other is local photographer Alice Wheeler). So what does he think Kurt would think about “Kurt”?

“It’s tough to say because if he was still around this might not be here,” Peterson said, hesitant to speculate. “He 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’s outsider that just doesn’t have a place in society and this does a good job of representing that.”

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