Review: SAM shows about Cobain and Warhol are daring — and they really work
Seattle Art Museum has paired exhibits about Kurt Cobain and Andy Warhol.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Kurt,' 'Andy Warhol Media Works'10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, through Sept. 6, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle (206-654-3100 or www.seattleartmuseum.org).
There are probably two groups of people who will be drawn to "Kurt," the Seattle Art Museum's big new show.
One will be fans of Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the grunge-rock band Nirvana, who died in 1994 at the age of 27, after achieving vast popularity for some intensely personal music. These folks may be emotionally invested in their experience, testing to see if the artists have managed to capture the image, aura or legacy of this icon of the Pacific Northwest.
The second group will simply be fans of contemporary art who are curious to see if the museum and Michael Darling — SAM's curator of modern and contemporary art, soon to be leaving for his new post at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art — have pulled off such a quirky, daring show.
Why daring? Well, it begs criticism from both groups: Will Nirvana fans be satisfied with the way Cobain is represented, the way his image is imitated, analyzed or even absent in many of the works? And will followers of contemporary art be persuaded that this is not just a gimmicky show, at best designed to pull in a certain audience or, at worst, taking advantage of a tragic figure who shouldn't register on the radar screen of contemporary art?
Darling has pulled it off. It's a visceral exhibition that brings together compelling work by established, emerging, local, national and international artists engrossed in various aspects of Cobain's image and career: artistic freedom, alienation, and the uneasy bond between expression and image in today's culture.
I'm not saying that everyone will like this show. Some viewers will find it too loud and ramshackle, with concept often trumping craft. But those qualities are important. Darling has deftly managed to avoid an artificial rock-show experience, while allowing the work to immerse viewers in some of the raucously beautiful, and, yes, grungy aspects of Cobain's life.
You're greeted by gripping black-and-white photographs of Nirvana in the early 1990s taken by Charles Peterson. The photos were enlarged for this show and hung close to the ground, inviting you to enter the scenes that contain a gritty reality and very little glamour. An iconic image of Cobain jumping backward into a drum kit isn't so much an impressive demonstration of audacious stagecraft as a glimpse of "Kurt in total abandon," according to Peterson.
Peterson's photographs represent a first-person, documentary impulse, while many of the other artists explore how identity and image are constructed, filtered through media or received secondhand. In "Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe," British artist Douglas Gordon wears a blond wig — an obvious prop that sits on his head as he looks gloomily into the camera. It's simple and goofy, but also potentially profound in the way it instantly collapses various identities and processes of identification.
These ideas, and Gordon's work of art, proved to be touchstones for Marisa Sanchez, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at SAM, as she organized the Andy Warhol exhibition that accompanies "Kurt." The Andy Warhol show was conceptualized by Darling as a companion show, a way to amplify certain themes — stardom, longing, death — and, perhaps, as a means to bring some historical gravitas to the art.
Sanchez took the idea and ran with it, composing an insightful and moody exhibition that delves into issues of image, celebrity and loss through carefully chosen "media works." Smartly avoiding Warhol's well-known silk-screened paintings of celebrities, Sanchez gathered hundreds of works that rely on photography or film.
For his "screen tests," Warhol would simply set up a movie camera and ask one of the many somebodies or nobodies who visited his studio ("The Factory") to sit and look into the camera as it rolled, testing their photogenic potential and star quality. These silent black-and-white short films are stunningly displayed along the walls of two galleries; you can sit and get lost in the larger-than-life faces.
Warhol loved to use Polaroid cameras to capture likenesses of himself and others, reveling in the mechanical instantaneousness of the images as they were spat out of the cameras.
He further removed his artistic hand with his "photo booth portraits," dumping hundreds of dollars of coins into photo booths to generate these strips of images of friends, patrons and himself.
As you exit the show, you can duck into a photo booth and have your own strip of portraits taken. And you're invited to snip a photo off to leave behind, attaching it alongside hundreds of others to a wall (this wall will be periodically photographed and posted on Facebook). It's fun, yes, but consider how your image, your pose, your "self" may be captured, gathered, mediated and received.
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.