Monday, May 12, 2008
Adam Cullen in the Sydney Morning Herald / Saturday 10 May 2008
THE Blue Mountains air is damp as Adam Cullen appears outside his home.
"How are you?" I ask.
"Depressed," he says.
I try another tack.
"How was last night's gallery opening?"
"Terrible," he says. "I busted up with my girlfriend. So it's all over."
So much for small talk. It's fair to say we are off to a tricky start. We walk down the driveway where an empty glass-fronted commercial fridge rests precariously, barely out of toppling distance from an immaculate cream and burgundy FC Holden station wagon. The metaphorical gloom lifts slightly as he explains the car's finer points and pats its chrome bumper bar.
Inside the house, his flatmate sits glued to a deafening TV and nods in brief acknowledgement over an Everest of laundry on the floor between us. While Cullen gathers some belongings to take to his studio, I wait on a back veranda where a herb garden grows in a rusting wheelbarrow. Chaos and careful attention surround the painter who is fashioned - or fashions himself - the bad boy of Australian art. The bad boy who lives, improbably, on Angel Street.
Cullen's friendship with convicted killer Mark "Chopper" Read, with whom he's collaborated on a couple of children's books, the putrefying pig's head he once dragged around on his ankle, his penchant for shooting and tanning assorted fauna have all built the macho mystique that has seen him cast as the Hunter S.Thompson of the art world.
His relationship with his image is ambivalent. One minute he says wearily that he's "tired of the myth of me", the next he fuels it, showing me his Smith & Wesson wristwatch, saying proudly that it's the "only completely bulletproof watch in the world".
"Keep right, keep right," Cullen barks as we drive down a steep, treacherously muddy track that leads to his studio. "A few friends have lost cars down there."
His studio is in front of an imposing Victorian-era mansion, once used by the Boyd family as a holiday home. Not that Cullen knew of its artistic legacy when he moved into the studio with its sweeping, bucolic view about eight years ago.
"Sidney Nolan built that," he says, indicating a section of dry stone wall. Cullen opens his studio, the floor of which is covered in open paint cans and cigarette butts, making an obstacle course for the unwary. But the empty vodka bottles that once littered the studio are these days outnumbered by bottles of cranberry juice. In his early 40s, Cullen remains baby-faced beneath a full beard, with a shy smile that seems at odds with his confident, resonant made-for-the-airwaves voice.
Several part-finished paintings are propped against the studio walls, expressive images in DayGlo colours of the lost and brutalised inhabitants of Loserville, as one critic has described Cullen's visual world. There are the beasts, battlers and bogans that have filled his canvases. There are also a couple of muted landscapes, terrain he's ventured into only during the past year or so.
His work has evolved over the years from assemblages made with the detritus of suburban life to text-based work but he is best known for his portraits, in particular for his 2000 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of actor David Wenham and of the murderers of Sydney nurse Anita Cobby, including ringleader John Travers, works that will be in his mid-career survey show at the Art Gallery of NSW.
"I've always painted human beings in various stages of physical and psychological trauma," he says. "I am drawn to people by their psychological intensity. I don't care if it's an actor or ex-con or a plumber or some crazed gun freak. Or that guy."
He points to a photograph of AC/DC's late frontman Bon Scott taped on the studio wall and the subject of a recent Cullen painting. "He's so ugly but so sexy," he says. "I like people with a death wish." He peppers his conversation with such provocative, declarative comments. Comments delivered apparently off-the-cuff but crafted with an attention to detail.
"Now these quotes are very easy to f--- up because they could be twisted if you miss out a conjunction," he warns.
No, Cullen doesn't believe he possesses a death wish. "I've never attempted suicide," he volunteers. "Why would you even bother? There ain't nothing there anyway. There ain't no relief, man. So just stay alive, you gutless pricks. That's why endurance is more important than truth. Just endure this time. It'll pass soon."
He delivers this bleak verdict with conviction - conviction reinforced by near fatal acute pancreatitis that saw him hospitalised 18 months ago, when, he says, he was revived six times. He suddenly lifts his shirt to display the deep scar left from 38 stitches where his gall bladder and part of his pancreas were removed. But ask if this has made much impact on his art - work concerned with mutilation and mortality - and he replies: "Not much … I suppose I'm a questioner. I just want to know what happens. I want a reaction."
Indeed he does, in his words as much as his paintings, and that provocation divides the art world. Wayne Tunnicliffe, curator of the Art Gallery of NSW exhibition Let's Get Lost, says Cullen's persona can distract from the seriousness of his art.
Tunnicliffe draws a connection between Cullen and Nolan, with their examination of Australian life and character and their creation of cartoon-like figures.
"He has articulated the sense of a broken Australia, dysfunctional relationships, this underbelly to Australian life," Tunnicliffe says. "And that was apparent in early object work with discarded materials. They were literally broken up and damaged."
The paintings look spontaneous but they were carefully considered and worked through in preliminary sketches, Tunnicliffe says.
Herald art critic John McDonald is unconvinced and sees more persona than substance. "Adam's entire artform is basically saying, 'Look at me, look at me, look at me,"' McDonald says.
"The colours are chosen to be as lurid and as in your face as possible. The images are often chosen the same way. The whole thing is knocked up with a contemptuous speed … He's revelled in the idea that people see him as this terrible renegade. But art which is fuelled and motivated by the desire to outrage people is rather boring stuff nowadays."
His works command big prices and he is represented in important galleries and corporate and private collections. Elton John, Amanda Vanstone and Tasmanian politician Duncan Kerr, who has become friends with Cullen, are among those who have bought his work. Kerr acknowledges Cullen has courted controversy but there's a more reflective side to him.
"He's a very thoughtful man," Kerr says. "When you become someone's friend you see a much more complex person than the public would. He's very intelligent, very acute and interested in the big themes, the confronting themes like death, sex, violence, the human condition. The same themes that are in Shakespeare."
Cullen is preoccupied with the dark side of the Australian psyche but he grew up in a creative family in the sunny Sydney beachside suburb of Collaroy, where he spent his early years surfing and drawing cartoons for the local paper. His father is a retired builder and teacher who studied flamenco guitar; his Gundagai-born mother, a potter and actress. They are both of Irish descent.
"She was born in a tent because the English landowners wouldn't let my grandfather camp on their farm," Cullen says. "No dogs, no blacks, no Irish."
He smoulders with the anger of ancient Anglo-Irish insults and feuds. Cullen shares a fascination - as did Nolan - with the Irish outlaw Ned Kelly. A large self-portrait as Kelly's death mask, a work in progress, reaches almost to the ceiling of his studio. Cullen has depicted the death mask on a plinth with Cullen's name on it. He also has a silk screen image of Kelly by his cousin, the actor and artist Max Cullen, in his home. They are both Kelly scholars, he says. His Irish background is part of his identity and it has informed his work.
Cullen keeps detailed journals and sketchbooks. He indicates a stack of them in the studio. Amid the sketches on almost every page is the name Bukowski, the so-called poet laureate of skid row.
"My work is investigating all the contrasts and darks and whites of being an Australian and what that identity is," he says. "Sure we can be laconic, but there's this undercurrent, this dark thing."
He turns to a photograph on the studio wall of two fighting stallions. They are rearing at each other on their hind legs, teeth bared. "They'll eat each other's heads away until they bleed to death," he says. But he prefers a good bullfight to fighting horses. He got hooked on them when he spent three months in Spain last year and went each Sunday. "I loved the pain. I liked the blood. I liked the opera and this feeling of being in ancient Rome. Things are so basic. You bite, you get exhausted and
then you die … it was like the birth of tragedy every time," he says. In Spain, he revisited the painting that transfixed him when he first saw it as a 10-year-old - Goya's graphic, cannibalistic Saturn Devouring His Son. It's a bloody work that some have seen as an allegory of time devouring everything before it.
"Every work I do seems to be based around that painting," he says. "I think my life is about trying to compete with that painting … It's so ghastly horrible and so close. It's like you have these thoughts and you don't act on them. That's the difference between being sane and insane."
Adam Cullen's Let's Get Lost is at the Art Gallery of NSW from Thursday 15 May 2008.