If you ever doubted art dealt with reality, visit Seattle Art Museum this summer and have it hit you in the face. And the ears. And the gut. With two dual exhibits, SAM launches into the realm of pop culture with a vengeance: “Kurt” takes the ever-growing icon of grunge rock legend Kurt Cobain and enshrines it with local and international art, while “Andy Warhol Media Works” shows how Warhol got the whole icon thing going in the first place.
Let’s face it – most people going to see “Kurt” probably already are believers. If you’re not, walking into the show is a lot like entering an exotic Asian temple as a buttoned-up Methodist: the air’s thick with mysterious adoration.
SAM curator Michael Darling – for whom this is a farewell show before he leaves for greener pastures at MCA, Chicago – has created a heady atmosphere mixing Nirvana concert with Cobain séance.
On the walls are Alice Wheeler’s dazzling photo of Cobain with oversized shades at the Seattle MTV Live and Loud, and Charles Peterson’s black-and-whites of Cobain falling over his own drum kit.
Throbbing from the huge, soundproofing foam cylinder in the middle of the room is a sound work made by Hadley + Maxwell just for the show – clips of electronic hums, screaming fans and Cobain grunts in an eerie séance remix.
Thus it starts, and so it goes on. This isn’t a show for wimps: Love Cobain or leave exasperated. The other half-dozen rooms go from adulating portraits through forensic analysis to sheer wacky spin-off.
There’s some really great stuff, especially from local artists who give the show a Seattle vibe despite Darling’s international aims. Gretchen Bennett’s gorgeously radiant pencil drawings capture Cobain as a kind of ethereal ambassador, including the pinky-coral “Like a Setting Sun (South G Street, Tacoma).” Scott Fife of Tacoma Art Museum’s famous “Leroy the Pup,” has styled Cobain as a fallen god, his severed head a patchwork of gray cardboard and glue lying like a toppled statue on the floor and radiating unvarnished nastiness.
There’s Cobain as Norse hero (Friedrich Kunath, drawing the singer as a Siegfried wandering a forest full of symbols from his own notebooks), Cobain as an energetic blast of light (Banks Violette’s dense graphite), Cobain as a pop identity merging via a blond wig with Marilyn, Andy Warhol and others (Line Skywalker Karlstrm).
Then there’s more subtle stuff, such as the silent video by Jennifer West of herself and her son jumping on a trampoline. Thanks to the film being dipped in Cobain-inspired substances such as bleach and laxatives, it’s dirtied up to be the perfect visual translation of the manic Nirvana energy that pours out of several sound installations through the show.
As with all cults, there are parts that make you wince. There’s Evan Holloway’s sculpture of Cobain as a Styrofoam statue forever falling (how romantic) into an Escher-like pencil vortex on the floor. Melanie Schiff’s quasi-glamorous chromogenic prints of a nude groupie go over the top, and Gillian Wearing’s video of herself dancing really badly to an unheard Nirvana track in a mall somewhere is just embarrassing, not to mention Rodney Graham’s fanlike slideshow of deserted Aberdeen shop windows.
“love fear pleasure lust pain glamour death – Andy Warhol Media Works” ranges along the gallery parallel to “Kurt,” and that’s apt. The series of Warhol’s photographs and film portraits, curated by SAM’s Marisa Sanchez, go behind the pop art to the man who endlessly created icons out of humans in a way that every Nirvana fan (including the SAM artists) did for Kurt Cobain. Included in the show are some of Warhol’s photo booth portrait strips – self-portraits and friends, some uninspiring, some Hollywood, tongue-in-cheek. You can even create your own with a photo booth in the final gallery, along with a wall of clips laid over the Warhol quote about “art being for the mass of the American people.”
There are some of his sewn multiple portraits of 1987, made just before his death. Softer and more tactile than the Marilyn-style print multiples, they explore fame and death in shades of black and white. But most arresting is the central room of screened film portraits. Shot at 24 frames per second, they’re projected onto the walls at only 16 frames per second – silent movie speed.
The result is a set of intimate, haunting portraits of folks such as Lou Reed and Billy Linich hanging ghostly, almost there: not quite moving, not quite still, in a limbo world between death and fame-induced eternal life. It’s the same world, in fact, that Cobain inhabits, summoned temporarily into the pristine galleries of Seattle Art Museum.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, rosemary.ponnekanti@the newstribune.com
What: “Kurt”/ “love fear pleasure lust pain glamour death – Andy Warhol Media Works”
Where: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday through Friday through Sept. 6
Admission: $15/$12 seniors and military, $9 students and ages 13-17, free for younger than 12 and the first Thursdays of each month