The Acute Misfortune of Adam Cullen

Published October 18, 2014

Adam Cullen’s brief but eventful career was one long exercise in attention-seeking behaviour. My habitual reaction to such antics is to ignore them – to refuse to provide the oxygen of commentary, criticism, indignation that feeds self-obsession.
Now that it’s all over, and Erik Jensen has immortalised the artist in a small, tragic memoir titled Acute Misfortune, it may be time to reflect on the rise and fall of Adam Cullen. The first problem is to separate the art from the the artist. Cullen’s personality tends to dominate discussions of his work. I’m tempted to call him “Adam”, even though I never knew him personally, because the book paints such an intimate portrait.
There will always be a perverse glamour in self-destructive figures such as Rimbaud, who seem to recognise no authority, no conventions, other than their own desires. Cullen styled himself in this manner but everything was a pastiche. Jensen finds that the epigrams that littered his subject’s conversation were usually quotations. Cullen saw himself as “Irish”, but had never been to Ireland. He pretended to be a wild man but was covetous of prizes and honours. He hung out with Chopper Read and made up stories about his criminal past, but was in tears at the prospect of going to gaol. Cullen’s insecurities leak out of every page of Jensen’s memoir.
One feels that the artist’s friends were attached to him because of this vulnerability, not for the reckless, obnoxious side that has been so well documented – yet is still sanitized in the book.
It seems that Cullen suffered from not having the dysfunctional childhood that would have fleshed out his personal mythology. His parents doted on him and encouraged his artistic aspirations. His attachment to his dad, Kevin, was deeper and closer than most father-son relationships.
He had a talent for caricature that was readily translated into large, lurid cartoon-like paintings. Every so often a glimmer of personality or wit would shine out from one of these pictures, as in his Archibald Prize-winning portrait of David Wenham, which must be his most likeable work. The majority looked dashed-off: deliberately ugly, striving to be as eye-catching and shocking as possible. He made art world dignitaries such as Edmund Capon or Liz-Ann McGregor look like feral pigs or vampires from space, and they were pleased to go along with it.

'A Lass - Liz Anne McGregor'
‘A Lass – Liz Anne McGregor’

Cullen understood how to achieve an instant impact, and knew that this is all most people expect from a painting. I didn’t find anything impressive about a cartoon figure slapped onto a shocking pink background. The pictures of headless women were studied exercises in misogyny, intended to draw howls of outrage. The Art Gallery of NSW gave Cullen a “retrospective” – an honour it has never extended to senior artists such as Charles Blackman or Robert Dickerson, suggesting that a life-time’s toil in the studio is of less significance than the productions of a self-styled schlock merchant. To Cullen the survey was a confirmation of his own genius.
Such moments of ego-gratification fed the addict’s need for ever greater sensations, and the final years of Cullen’s life are truly horrible to contemplate. Drink and drugs are the coward’s method of getting through life. As De Quincey noted in Confessions of an English Opium Eater, nobody ever did anything artistically worthwhile when they were stoned. Ken Kesey would echo these thoughts in his chronicles of the LSD years.
The idea that Cullen “had” to drink a bottle of vodka before embarking on a painting only reveals his deep-rooted anxieties. His taste for shooting and mutilating animals was another form of premeditated repulsiveness. Jensen talks about Cullen’s residency in Hill End, where he walked around shooting things, and complained that he was too much of an “intellectual” for the local publican. Jensen doesn’t tell us how Cullen allegedly stuffed rotting animal carcasses underneath the cottage in which he was living, ensuring that the next resident would be overwhelmed by the stench. Cullen was seemingly proud of his various nasty pranks, which denote a complete disrespect for the rest of humanity.
What he did respect was publicity: the pictures in the newspaper, the TV and radio reports, the adulation and scorn. He knew that in the world of contemporary art the artist’s image often counts for more than the work. Make yourself into a media hero or pariah, and the sales and celebrations are sure to follow.
Even the incident in which Christopher Allen resigned from the judging panel of the Blake Prize because a Cullen crucifixion was included, was a media beat-up. The story is misreported by Jensen, who fails to acknowledge that Allen stepped down when a painting that had been rejected the previous day was suddenly included, after his fellow judges suffered a miraculous overnight conversion. Allen was motivated by principle and consistency, not a pathological dislike of Cullen’s work. It’s too simplistic to portray Cullen as a daring, radical artist who raised the ire of a ‘conservative’ judge.
Cullen’s final slide into illness and death is a compelling, dismal tale. The exposure of his incipient homosexuality has been the shock-horror factor in extracts from the book, but this is a non-event. Why should it surprise us that a figure so confused about everthing should be confused about his sexual identity? It’s all there in the blatant misogyny that was habitually viewed as a joke in bad taste. We all had to make allowances for Adam, he was so provocative! Don’t you understand his irony?
Although much of this memoir is brutal and unflattering, it adds to the myth of the artist. In journalistic terms it’s an easy read – like true crime books about serial killers. It gives us the vicarious pleasure of gazing from the sidelines as a personality disintegrates. It’s like watching a horror movie: it reduces a human life to a ghastly spectacle, making us feel smug in our own orderly existences. It’s an example of that undignified kind of fun that exists everywhere in our popular culture – the story of a sad, self-destructive prankster that we’ve turned into a culture hero.