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April 20, 2021

When tormented genius really meant something

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Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen.
Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen.

Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen by Erik Jensen (Black Inc $32.99)

Review by Alison Kubler

Before Ben Quilty became poster boy for a brief history of masculinity in Australian culture, as seen through the lens of gestural painting, there was Adam Cullen. Cullen’s painting style comparatively was far less polite; he took no prisoners, shining a light on the ugly underbelly of our national character, and himself.

His larger practice was a post-punk howl of ironic masochism often imbued with humour and melancholy.

His paintings were frequently ugly, vulgar even, painted in cheap house paint, always provocative. When Adam Cullen entered and won the Archibald Prize in 2000 he stimulated the populist exhibition with a new relevance and vigour. It was a fascinating move on the part of the art world enfant terrible. The barbarian at the gate was overnight a sensation.

Cullen would wrestle ever after with the tension between fame and infamy; his untimely death meant the full extent of his artistic contribution was only realised posthumously.

For my Masters in post-war and contemporary art history at Manchester University I decided (curiously) to write about grunge and rad scunge in Australia. Yes, rad scunge was a ‘thing’ in 1997, and one of its great exponents was Adam Cullen. His time at Sydney College of Art, where he chained a rotting animal corpse to his leg and wore it until he was made to remove it, was already the stuff of lore.

After graduating I went on to work at Gold Coast City Art Gallery, one of the first major public galleries to acquire a work by Cullen, through their annual prize in 1996.

I well remember the wonderful shock and opprobrium of certain sectors of the arts community when esteemed curator Daniel Thomas awarded Cullen for his painting My Parents’ Telephone Number is 9982 1626 (which it is). A diptych of one panel of the aforementioned text and another of a kind of scatological abstraction it encapsulates the spirit of post-grunge rad scunge: a reduction of painting to its lowest depths of misery.

Cullen’s work is undoubtedly due a retrospective gaze. But artists’ biographies with their painstaking chronological approach can be turgid at the best of times, best left to aficionados. Erik Jensen’s page-turner, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, is not one of those. Nor is it strictly a biography. It certainly is not a book for academics looking for catalogue raisonne depth. Rather it is an excoriatingly honest portrayal of one of Australia’s most significant artists, written from the perspective of Jensen, editor of The Saturday Paper, whose friendship with Cullen afforded him an intimate view of the artist’s path of self-destruction.

Jensen is tightly entwined with his subject, whom he revered and at times feared. Like the time Cullen accidentally shot him. Or threw him from a moving motorbike. Cullen’s early death was perhaps a fait accompli, yet it is important to resist reducing him to an artistic stereotype; tortured genius, addictive personality, suicidal tendencies and failed relationships. To do so is to deny his considerable intelligence and wit.

Jensen’s tale of an artist unravelling is respectful and aims to add depth to the cartoon of Cullen’s character. It moves at a cracking pace, building up a picture of Cullen through the reminiscences of those who knew him, but it is really the story of Jensen and Cullen, a tale of unrequited love (for Cullen).

For me, Acute Misfortune captured what it is to work in the arts, the unpredictability of it; the allure of edge-of-your seat crazy clever creative people. The book, like Cullen’s work, is a punch-you-in-the face read.

As a footnote to my thesis, several years later in 2003 I worked with Cullen on a touring exhibition of his work entitled Our Place in the Pacific. For a young curator the experience (Cullen was then in the grip of heroin) was a baptism of fire. I was the recipient of frequent drunken phone calls, alarming emails and finally a message from his then partner to say he had ‘died’ overnight, for a few minutes, only to have been revived. It was a tumultuous but rewarding relationship. I knew I was working with a genius. Maybe I should have written about it.

BBWF 2015 Articles & Reviews

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