Portraits are collaborations between the sitter and the artist. Sometimes the artist can be overwhelming or patronizing but in most cases the sitter’s vision of how they would like to be seen now and in perpetuity wins out. This is particularly seen in cases of well known personalities. Prime examples are the portraits of Andy Warhol exposing his scars after being shot to both Alice Neel and Richard Avedon. In these vastly different images Warhol clearly wanted the world to know what had been perpetrated against him and how his suffering lingered. When the portraits are images of celebrities, particularly those in the last few decades, the public has a strange sense of possession, teetering on full-blown obsession. The success of the portrait hinges on several factors from the artist including generosity, intelligence, empathy, skill, and creative facility. Fortunately this is what is on exhibition at LABspace in Hillsdale NY, Kurt and Courtney, by collaborative photography duo Guzman. Guzman is made up of Constance Hansen and Russell Peacock. In their 30+ years of photography they have solidified a reputation across all genres from conceptual and documentary work to bringing cool, enlightened, humanizing aesthetics to the commercial worlds of fashion, advertising, and celebrity portraits. As summed up in a recent discussion about their work, Constance Hansen said the intent is not to make a mean photo, but a photo that embraces the person.
Kurt and Courtney is a predominately never before seen visual document into the lives of Kurt Cobain, front man and co-founder of Nirvana and Courtney Love, front woman for Hole. Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were a generational touchstone emerging during a time dubbed the culture wars when conservatives launched huge campaigns attacking artists, musicians and actors as vehicles demolishing family values, a code phrase that embodied racism, anti LGBTQIA rights and anti feminism. During this period Cobain emerged as the poet laureate of grunge and disenfranchised youth during the last breaths of the 20th century.
Guzman, commissioned by Spin magazine in 1992 to do a cover shot, were welcomed into the Cobain/Love home shortly after the birth of their daughter, Frances Bean and in the midst of fallout from an especially judgmental article in Vanity Fair, that questioned their competence to be parents due to alleged drug use. This magazine piece precipitated an investigation by social services and a threat to remove Frances Bean from their care.
Upon entering LABspace, you are immediately confronted by Courtney Love Holding Frances Bean, a stark 6 x 4 foot black and white, grainy, blown up madonna and child that, unlike other such images is not a vision of a mother lovingly gazing at her child, but of a mother with a death grip on her infant, glaring straight at the camera, almost daring anyone to come near. What makes this image even more compelling is that it is a nearly nude photo of a young woman who had just given birth and then was catapulted into a struggle for her child. Guzman’s suggestion of this pose drives home the reality of postpartum life to the point where Love transcends her fame to become the everywoman, not the image of motherhood depicted by “family values”. In another family portrait, Kurt, Courtney and Frances Bean, Guzman has beautifully produced a double photo, on Gampi Paper. This Japanese paper is a translucent paper with a smooth surface and has a satin like sheen. In this double portrait, Guzman recalled, Kurt wrote family values on Courtney’s stomach and “Diet Grrrl (referencing Riot Grrrl, a feminist, activist group in the northwest) on his own body. In the lower section of this image, Cobain is staring directly into the camera, while holding the baby next to his wife, a smile on his face that is both humorous and sarcastic.
It’s difficult when looking at celebrity photos to consciously suspend preconceived ideas and knowledge of the subjects being portrayed, but in this case the rewards are vast. Guzman are masters not only at allowing their subjects to make a statement, but possess technical finesse and endless creativity. Two collages on display reflect their experimentation, the first being Courtney Love on Mulberry Paper, where the image of Love is cropped at the top and at the sides making her appear like a victorious warrior. Her face displays a distressing apprehension while she looks beyond the camera. This is one of the few images where she is not looking directly at the viewer. The portrait is sliced in half, her stomach reads “family values”. Almost a complementary piece is Kurt Cobain in Bed. It is the same size as Courtney Love, and similarly bisected. Unlike Courtney Love, who appears heroic, Cobain is posed upside down, wearing his iconic pajamas with a heart on the wall between his legs. This work hints at a sense of playfulness displayed by Cobain. The Mulberry paper on which these two images are printed, although incredibly strong, gives a sense of fragility to the final works.
An added perk is a collection of 15 Polaroid outtakes Guzman took during the Kurt and Courtney shoot as testers. Not only do they shed light on the shoot itself, but they also harken back to a methodology used by photographers prior to the age of digitization.
In a smaller adjacent gallery, works highlighting Guzman’s lengthy career and recent photographs of local fauna (inspired by their move from New York City to the Hudson Valley) gives the viewer not only a birds-eye view into the well of virtuosity exemplified by Guzman’s body of work, but also the realization that artists who choose to make a living using their expertise are anonymous and very rarely recognized for their creative contributions and historical documentation of a cultural time and place. In this space, Iggy Pop’s portrait is striking. Taken when Pop was 69 years old, following a concert, his exhaustion and dedication to his fan base is palpable. His enormous hands leaning on a hammer, his eyes almost closed reveals not a stereotype glitzy rock star, but a man who gave all he could give to his audience. Other seminal photos include Debbie Harry, Snoop Dogg, and Erykah Badu.
These works described are only a hint of a treasure trove of reality through art on exhibit. This is a moment in time, a moment of a generation captured by Guzman that allows us to reflect 29 years later, on the maelstrom this couple, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, two people in their mid-twenties were caught in. Not only did Guzman give us an intimate view into the defiance that made this couple famous, but also they produced beautiful photos that once again prove, after an age of being pummeled with images of selfies, perfect dinners and perfect lives, that photography is an art.
Kurt & Courtney is on exhibit Sat & Sun 1pm–5pm and by appointment through August 30 at LABspace, 2642 NY Route 23, Hillsdale NY. For appt contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Extended hours, during Upstate Art Weekend,
Aug 27-29, Friday- Sunday 12-6pm
Sara Farrell Okamura is an artist, writer, and arts educator based in North Adams, Massachusetts.