Monday, July 19, 2010

Kurt - They'll miss you when you're gone.

by Stephen Cummings with Christina Mesiti

Kurt at Seattle Art Museum

Michael Darling's parting gift to Seattle may appeal to the city's grunge nostalgia, but if you want to see a worthwhile look at some pop culture icons, I suggest edging next door to the Warhol show. Whereas Andy's portraits seem to lay bare the depths of his subjects, Seattle Art Museum's Kurt dances around its title character without really going anywhere.

Whether through big photographs, crude graphite, or loud noises, Kurt's efforts at introspection fail to do much more than point to an icon. (Look! he existed!) I mean, I guess the work does "cause viewers to question why and how Kurt’s visage and his gestures came to mean so much to a generation,” as Darling says, but that's largely because the visual ineptitude causes us to ask ourselves why we should be looking at this stuff in the first place. Grunge music may have rejected the flashy visual effects of 80's glam rock as unrelated to the music, but is this amalgam of half-baked drawings, half-realized installations, and juvenile tributes to Nirvana's lead singer rejecting the visual as unrelated to . . . the visual?

Art is more than that, of course, and much of the work in these galleries is clearly aimed at more than one of our senses, but be it auditory, visual, or the institutional arrangement itself, this show, more often than not, is limp. Upon entry, two of our first encounters are a series of photographs by Charles Peterson, and a sort of stage set / recording studio installation by Maxwell + Hadley. The photographs: better suited for a VH1 documentary than an art museum. The frozen frames of Kurt Cobain's drum-set jump, seen all together, slow everything to a plodding monotony where the end is known and the middle isn't very interesting. I suppose the large format printing was intended to make this work bold, but the slow, awkwardness of it all makes what must have been at least a mildly violent action seem strange and kind of pathetic. As for the Maxwell + Hadley installation, here I suppose the cacophonous crowd noise in that little space was meant to be overwhelming and off-putting — and it was. But the stilted arrangement of objects and lazy separation from the rest of the gallery ensured immersion was a non-occurrence, making a weird, loud, obtrusion nothing more than weird, loud, and obtrusive.

It goes on like this. In the next room, a blaring silver wall cries out, 'Look! Icon!', only to direct us to a sad little painting by Elizabeth Peyton. What Regina Hackett calls "lovely as a wilting wildflower," I call piddling and naive. Later on, Banks Violette reproduces photographs in graphite, to which I say, Why not just photographs? MoMA or not, this was an assignment I had in high school, and no more interesting, even with a gallery full of bad-ass wall decal blackness.

I could go on with more non-aesthetic paintings, and heavy-handed graphite, and bland photography, and a thing that gets in your way while it plays lots of music, but you get the idea. There are highlights: Scott Fife's big ol' head is sort of interesting, though it's exactly the same as his Elvis, and lacks the power of his T-Rex; and Jeffry Mitchell's Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain in the Style of Jay Steensma stands out as something worth seeing, but I have to agree with the assessment that it's a "hidden gem". Unassuming, this small painting doesn't scream for attention, so you'll have to look for it in what is otherwise a collection of mediocrity.

Remember though, this is grunge. The visual aesthetic is supposed to say "I don't care." (Not the nihilistic, revolutionary uncaring of Dada, mind you, but an angsty, teenagery uncaring that's trying really hard to show us just how much it doesn't care.) But isn't grunge dirty? Isn't it at least unkempt? Isn't it haphazard, or slightly dangerous, or something? I ask this only to say that all the the things I've complained about may have been effective if the setting wasn't the inescapable white cube. (May have.) For all the daring of putting on a show around such an odd subject, no innovation was employed in presentation. It's the same, antiseptic neutrality as always. Could it be that this work needs to function in a space that's different from that of Dan Flavin and Josef Albers?

With work deliberately unresolved, and often at odds with its surroundings, the viewer looks to the institution for explanations. It creates a perfect opportunity for the museum to explain to us why we should care, flexing its analytical muscle to prove the relevance of the whole endeavor. But the result is overly earnest wall text taking itself very seriously in a show ostensibly serious about being apathetic. Sort of. This could just be a serious attachment to grunge. The Kurt Cobain hero worship is way over the top, curators, artists, and many viewers complicit. It seems that the only reason to care about much of this is an abject embrace of all things Cobain. Why is that ok? A comparable James Dean show would never fly. Way too kitschy. The stuff of tents at arts and crafts fairs. But because grunge brings that edge of anti-aesthetic, this show is called important.

So the curators fail the museum visitor first by selecting work we shouldn't care about, and then by trying to make us care about it. Kurt is seriously flawed in its execution. But it seems to be a success — of sorts. Reviewers and visitors alike are enthusiastic, many — too many — professing a love for the whole half-heartedly grungy affair. I attribute this difference of opinion to an overdeveloped local pride. But the fact that there are fish in the waters around town doesn't make sculptures of schooling salmon any good. Oh well.

At any rate, if I had known my ball point pen drawings from ninth grade would be museum quality work in ten years, I would have saved my trapper keepers.

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