Saturday, December 1, 2007

Adam Cullen - Sydney Morning Herald

He's not quite as mad as hell

Photo: Jon Reid

December 1, 2007

Adam Cullen insists he is not the bloodied, tough punk-addict artist of legend, writes Louise Schwartzkoff.

To one side of Adam Cullen's bald head is a small, round, purple bruise. It marks the spot where he hit the ground after a fall from his motorcycle that left him unconscious for two hours in the bush outside his Blue Mountains home. When he finally came to, he hopped back on his bike and rode home.

The story seems consistent with the mythology that has surrounded Cullen since his paintings of dismembered bodies and deformed animals first hit the market. This is a man who reportedly listens to angry punk rock as he slaps paint onto canvas, paints in blood, and chains rotting animals to his ankles in the name of art.

But quizzed about his tough-guy image, Cullen snorts: "That's rubbish. People just make this stuff up. I think stories become legend, and then legend becomes fact, and it sticks."

He quickly sifts the truth from the myths. The punk music? False. "I've been working in the quiet, but I listen to the ABC in the afternoon. Or just some jazz." The blood? Partly true.

"It was just a drop or so mixed in with the paint." The rotting animals? True. "But that was a long time ago."

Cullen has no doubt his latest body of work, I Am The Cheese - he says the title just popped into his head - will attract the usual indignant mutterings from certain quarters. In a garish rainbow palette he has painted a mish-mash of crazed horses and cartoonish historical figures. In one work two fighting stallions froth at the mouth. In another a king in battle armour confronts a bald bloke sitting on the toilet. Cullen says the figure on the toilet may be a self-portrait.

"But that's actually what all art is, a self-portrait. I've always thought of it as a bit of a freak show. It's unnerving and, I have to admit, slightly embarrassing that this stuff comes out of my head. But it isn't my fault that I absorb all the rubbish."

Cullen's mother would prefer he painted picturesque landscapes and elegant still lifes. "She's very supportive, but she doesn't like it, and I don't think she wants to understand it."

Despite such maternal disappointment, his work is in high demand. He may paint criminals and underdogs, but his canvases have sold to the likes of Elton John and Amanda Vanstone. His eyes light up when he hears that one of his works, Hygienically Sealed For Your Convenience And Hygiene, last week broke his previous auction record. "Yeah? Wow! That's great. But it's mildly embarrassing as well, because as soon as you make art you become a member of the bourgeoisie. But I enjoy that paradox."

Cullen forged a career as an angry young artist, but now he is in his 40s and the label is starting to wear thin.

"As I get older my painting has become less aggressive and more reflective. These days every time someone calls me angry it just makes me more and more angry."

I Am The Cheese is at the Kaliman Gallery, Paddington, until December 22.

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