In the show “Kurt” at the Seattle Art Museum, on view from May 13 to September 6, many of the works contain familiar elements from the life of Kurt Cobain, the Seattle rocker who brought grunge music into the mainstream. Daniel Guzmán uses a snippet of Cobain’s angsty lyrics in a drawing, specifically “Now I’m bored and old” from the song “Serve the Servants.” A color-saturated photograph by Alice Wheeler shows the musician at an MTV appearance. On the macabre side, Jordan Kantorhas based a series of paintings on forensic photographs of Cobain’s suicide, in 1994.
But Cobain often surfaces here as an ephemeral presence. Slater Bradley‘s video Phantom Release (2003) is made to look like an amateur recording of Cobain’s band, Nirvana, in concert (the musicians are played by stand-ins). With nearly 80 works on view by 30 artists, including Banks Violette and Jessica Jackson Hutchins, there are plenty of moments in which the pop-culture icon provides a springboard for exploring fame, desire, and alienation.
Take for example Scottish artist Douglas Gordon‘s Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe (1996). The photograph, of Gordon wearing a blond wig, exploits how easily one visual element can evoke a well-known person–or several of them. Gordon also subverts the idea of fan worship by listing a convicted killer, Myra Hindley, in the title. Ultimately the piece is less about Cobain than about fandom, the desire to identify with famous figures, and the transgressive nature of that desire.
Michael Darling, curator of contemporary and modern art at the museum, “rejected a lot of direct representation, because it was not rich enough or complicated enough,” he says. One portrait he did select was Elizabeth Peyton‘s Zoe’s Kurt (1995). Darling sees a “fan’s attentiveness, a certain tenderness” in the Peyton, which casts Cobain as a feminine poet.
But Darling is “especially curious” about the conceptual work. He points out Sam Durant‘s installation Upside Down and Backwards, Completely Unburied (1999), in which Cobain is scrambled up with other artists and musicians. The work includes a miniature model of a Robert Smithsonsculpture, surrounded by speakers playing the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, and other bands. “It’s about how music conveys history,” Darling says.
Even work without Cobain in it can be about Cobain. In Jennifer West‘s Nirvana Alchemy Film (2007), Nirvana is absent. The soundless video shows a woman jumping in an atmospheric setting created by soaking the film in lithium mineral hot springs and pennyroyal tea, dousing it in mud, and sopping it in bleach, cherry antacid, and laxatives. Rodney Graham‘s Aberdeen (2000) is a slide show of images the artist took in the poor coastal town in Washington where Cobain grew up. “This is really an elegy,” Darling says.