Celebrity Skin exposed at Henry

Pete Townsend, lead guitarist for British rock legends The Who, said something to the effect that, had he been as gorgeous to look at as Kurt Cobain, he might have been tempted to kill himself, too.

What Townsend was implying, it seems, is that the stress of celebrity such as that experienced by Nirvana's frontman is increased exponentially when the subject of adoration also happens to be beautiful. Everyone wants a piece of you.

Windmill Pete's funky, hangdog looks might have worked as a stopgag on the possessive, obsessive assault better-looking celebs endure from the media. Witness Marilyn Monroe: Everyone still wants a piece of her.

The wages of celebrity

For someone who experienced at a relatively short remove the ebb and flow that was Seattle's so-called "grunge explosion" - from, say, circa 1988 through April 5, 1994, when Cobain put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger - looking at pictures of Kurt still provoke a complicated swirl of emotions.

Reluctantly photogenic, a downbeat, angrogyne angel whose piercing, baby-blue eyes burned with an intensity rivaling his voice, Cobain proved the perfect icon for the '90s music revolution: ambivalent about everything, including his omnisexual appeal.

Alice Wheeler's photographs of Nirvana currently on display at Henry Art Gallery are a reminder of both the allure and the wages of celebrity.

Such shots as Cobain at Seattle's Pier 63, circa 1993 - chintzy tinsel stole, buggy sunglasses, whiskered chin and lank, blond hair - remind us of the undeniable and almost otherworldly appeal Cobain held for so many, even as the portraits now retain a patina of doomed mortality.

Or maybe that taint was always there.

Trading cards

Wheeler's portraits of Nirvana and Nirvana fans are juxtaposed, quite brilliantly, with La Galerie Contemporaine, a series of celebrity photographs published in 1870s France.

The collection - of which the most famous is the black-and-white portrait of poet Charles Baudelaire - served as trading cards of a sort for the upper-middle classes, who collected and swapped the pocket-sized pictures as a faddish pastime.

In a deft move, curator Robin Held juxtaposes Baudelaire's dour visage with an early shot of Cobain. Not only do the two icons share eerily similar biographies - tormented poets, drug addicts, died young - their ethereal, bemused expressions of combined inquisitiveness and detachment mirror one another.

Wanting more

Celebrity, this exhibit hints, is a vast and complicated negotiation between subject and audience, full of the tension of desire, compulsion and, sometimes, repulsion, and ever mediated in the modern age by the seeing eye of the camera's shutter.

It's too bad this exhibit is so small, limited to two rooms and only a handful of portraits.

As with celebrity itself, one is left wanting more.

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