If a Spotlight Is a Black Hole
The Séance for Kurt Cobain at Seattle Art Museum
Kurt the art exhibition, like Kurt the person (and Kurdt the rock star, as he called himself), is complicated. One fan on opening day at Seattle Art Museum last week had been at the memorial 16 years ago; he'd loaded up his iPod with Nirvana to walk the galleries. But he wasn't satisfied. The songs, his memories, and the art weren't coming together.
Kurt is an exhibition of drawings, photographs, paintings, sculptures, videos, and sounds by artists from Seattle and around the world in response to Kurt Cobain's life, music, writings, and death. Would Kurt like Kurt? The question collapses under its own paradox: Kurt wouldn't exist if Kurt were here.
I have sympathy for the unsatisfied fan I ran into at Kurt and the others who will show up looking for some approximation of the other public gatherings around Kurt Cobain: the memorial, the rock shows, the invisible gatherings of nostalgia that happen in the minds of listeners every time his pleading/furious, pull-you-in/push-you-back-out voice plays in a bar or a cafe, especially in Seattle. Rock and art do not abide by the same rules, but they share some roots. Kurt is colder than Kurt because it is one step removed, and that step is death. Kurt knows how the story ends.
Everybody who has a heart inside their bones feels that the worst possible outcome of Kurt would be an extension of the exploitation (however self-exploitative he was) of the skinny kid from Aberdeen. But what would a "caring" exhibition about Kurt Cobain look like? Because he seems to have died as much from fame as from addiction and a shotgun, enshrining him any further is a bad idea. A large freestanding wall painted a blinding silver is the backdrop for Elizabeth Peyton's sweet-faced little portrait of Kurt. Adding the silvery wall (the museum's idea) turns Peyton's painting into an icon and brings to mind Andy Warhol's vision of the dead Marilyn Monroe, her head shot suspended in a field of gold, her face wearing an expression of publicity as if it were the cause of death. These are death's-heads, not memorials.
Rumor has it that the exhibition curator, Michael Darling, has in his possession a whole stack of unsolicited art by Kurt Cobain fans. It would be interesting to see some, to compare them to what's on display. But what would a show full of tributes be, other than a soon-to-wilt graveside display? (Which never happened: Kurt was cremated.) On the flip side, art that's too analytical overlooks the fact that we're talking about a human life—it risks inviting a crowd to an autopsy rather than a wake. The gallery at the heart of the exhibition is eerily, freezingly precise in its aesthetic: It's entirely black and white—which is typical for this artist, Banks Violette—and in the center of the room is a shiny black deconstructed drum kit on a shiny black platform with shiny black stalagmites growing out of it, as if the drum kit Kurt is seen falling into in near-life-size photographs at the entrance to the exhibition (by Charles Peterson) has since congealed into a dark force of nature. Pencil drawings hang on the walls flanking the drums, and they are quite beautiful; one titled Spotlight (blackhole) depicts a spotlight as flat negative space in a field of glowing graphite. Capping the installation is a cold, hard geometric wall painting based on a graphic taken from Judas Priest (a band blamed for the suicides of two young men in 1985). The much-needed escape valve from this two-tone prison is Jennifer West's brightly colored Nirvana Alchemy Film projected on the far wall, a streaky 16-mm reel with a 1960s afterglow in which she filmed herself and her son jumping on a trampoline to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," then doused the film in materials from Nirvana lyrics: pennyroyal tea, bleach, lithium, cherry antacid, laxatives. Add heavy metal to tainted free love and you get Nirvana; the gallery is a glimpse at a larger American history, too.
Kurt's identity, music, and death are inseparable, and this is a problem. As Seattle curator and writer Eric Fredericksen (director at Western Bridge exhibition space) says in an essay about authenticity, rock, and karaoke: "While Cobain's suicide was doubtlessly contributed to by a combination of forces, including depression and heroin abuse, his expressed motivations in his suicide note claim it largely as the product of an artistic failure." Kurt killed himself because he felt he'd become a bad artist—one whose heart wasn't in it, who had to pretend to enjoy what he was doing now that he was famous. He couldn't see a way to distance the artist from the person, and in his mind, since the artist had already failed, the person may as well simply stop.
Kurt is full of artists reacting against that lack of boundaries, being post-romantic. Many of them tread tentatively, making drawings that can be undone rather than paintings with ambitions to last forever. Drawings are rehearsals; for Kurt, fatally, everything was performance. In fact, the largest painting in the show is a six-by-six-foot depiction of a notebook page full of pencil drawings, some taken from Kurt's own imagery, by German artist Friedrich Kunath. Gretchen Bennett's YouTube-based drawings in colored pencil are fugitive images you'll never catch. Even the show's sculptures have a sketchy quality: a creepily real-looking Kurt head made of nailed-together cardboard scraps by Scott Fife, a scoliotic Kurt on guitar carved in white foam with a pencil drawing for a base by Evan Holloway. It's better to be unfinished than to fade away?
The first gallery contains a séance. There's a burial in the middle of the floor halfway through the show. The last gallery is an inquest. Music and noise play throughout. One of the highlights of the show is a large cylindrical enclosure like a music studio that stands near the entrance, beckoning you inside. It's called Standing Wave Séance, by Hadley + Maxwell, two artists formerly based in Vancouver, BC, but now in Berlin. The structure has been soundproofed on the outside (in an act of reverse protection), and inside, a naked lightbulb hangs above a mic. Under the mic stand is that hallmark of band practice spaces, a quilt of carpet remnants duct-taped together. Behind the mic is a stack of red Marshall amps—Kurt's signature equipment—and above that, a Kleenex dangles from the wall like a flag that might rustle to measure when the "spirit" enters the room. On another wall is a drawing of all the Kurt lips that appear in the entire exhibition, on a single piece of paper. The mic is on. If you yell into it, the soundtrack (being mixed by computer) of crowd roars and Kurt's disembodied voice might respond, and the light might flicker.
The burial halfway through the show is Sam Durant's model of Robert Smithson's 1970s earthwork Partially Buried Woodshed, which became a memorial to the Kent State shooting victims after it was installed there—and those shootings were the subject of a Neil Young song ("Ohio"); Kurt quoted another Young song ("My My, Hey Hey") in his suicide note. Here the woodshed doubles as a stereo console—with CD players tucked into it and a constellation of speakers attached like beating hearts to the sculpture—pumping out the Rolling Stones and Young and Nirvana. Identities and events tunnel into each other through the music and images, as in Douglas Gordon's famous Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe, a simple photo-booth shot of the artist wearing a floppy blond wig. Next to that 1996 picture is the great surprise of Kurt: a lusciously thick gray painting of a skull also wearing a blond wig by Seattle artist and Stranger Genius Jeffry Mitchell—made the same year and without knowledge of Gordon's work—called Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain in the Style of Jay Steensma. (Steensma inherited the "Northwest Mystic" mantle after Morris Graves; this work is Mitchell feasting, with gratefulness, on his forebears.)
All five Seattle artists in the show (Bennett, Mitchell, Fife, Peterson, and Alice Wheeler) lived here when Kurt was alive; some knew him. Their works do come across as closer, more intimate, more sympathetic to him and to those left behind. Wheeler's 1999 photograph of a boy in Seattle's tent city, the city rising up behind him into a bleached sky as he stares into the camera wearing his Kurt shirt, is the visual equivalent of an epic poem read from one generation to the next.
Jordan Kantor's forensic paintings of the greenhouse where Kurt's body was found—that's the inquest. Dario Robleto's black earplugs made from melted-down Nirvana and Hole records (titled It Sounds Like They Still Love Each Other to Me), Slater Bradley's uncanny Kurt impersonator (who actually looks nothing like Kurt, you realize when you finally figure out it's an imposter), Richard Hawkins's altered coffee-table book of homoerotic photographs collaged with death pictures of celebrities, Rodney Graham's slide show of Aberdeen—these may not be the works of art you thought you wanted going into Kurt. But as a group, they come across as oblique, fidgety, and eloquent, which is right.
This story has been updated since its original publication.