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Adam Cullen


“...In Adam's studio was a bit of text written on a wall. LOOK BEHIND YOU. I wasn't sure if it was advice or a warning, but it seemed apt either way....“

(excerpt from “Look behind you” by Andrew Frost, 2005)

Works chronology  
miscellaneous Adam Cullen Let Me Tell You About My Day Adam Cullen works2006 Adam Cullen Stupid Heaven Adam Cullen A Death Like No Other  
Title Unknown - Recognition of a Human Being, 2011

Yeah, you know the song, “Tragedy..when the something, can’t go on it’s tragedy” Bee Gees or some shit, anyway it’s stuck in my head, why I don’t know…maybe that’s what’s compelling me to write this down, as fast as I can…I reckon cigarettes are “1cm” too short…..

I just received a “Domino’s” pizza, you know the delivered one. I answered the door and there was my pizza. In a black box. Great box….the pizza, well, anyway. The delivery chap was probably about 140kg. He was repulsive….I sometimes hate fat people, especially when they deliver what they eat…no brain, no morals! I gave him a tip; the monetary/mammary kind. It was a supreme waste of time.

Domino’s always fuck it up – I asked for extra garlic plus extra cheese/thin and crispy. What I got was nothing close. What yours truly received was thick and doughy and bereft of garlic. It still sits in the fridge, alone, just asking for trouble…!!

…kind of almost extinct species – a sort of Australapithicus type with fangs and big black long haired testicles pressed firmly and constantly into the small of my back! Anyway - it’s a great job, if you can hack it. “Endurance is more important than truth” and that’s what you need…is the endurance.

The toilets we knew…!! Are still there!! - paraphrasing Schopenhauer’s “Happiness is nearly pain relief”

Conclusion. This suite of new works is simply part of my ongoing investigation into the urban/sub-urban psychological schema of para-rural discourse. Beasts of beasts, beasts of burden…crucifiction is a-fiction…exercise with a clown, they have big shoes. My love is dead………..I should sing a song.

AC 2011

A Death Like No Other by Erik Jensen, 2009

It is the second weekend of the bullfights. The Plaza de Toros half full. More men than women, but not a marked split. Fat Texans sit near the front. Hawing voices give them away. Mark them out as they struggle to contain their thoughts, point to the royal stand and say corporate box. Corpulent stooges. Why we live in groups.

There is no real reason to go to Ventas. It is the last stop on a metro line to nowhere. An appendix which might once have been a stomach and opens up that way each October.

The train fills with every station. Some tourists; mainly locals; moustaches and cushions of a regular trip. On the plaza there is the sense of expectation and regret - the before and after you rarely get at the same time; that you sometimes have in paintings, and comic books, but almost never in real life.

Nut sellers hawk salt-dusted almonds. Sunflower seeds that will later husk the stands. A Japanese girl argues the price but her Spanish won't hold.

A flourish of trumpet. Squat Spaniards with black hair and brown sweat. A man on horseback, hat like a cake stand, stabs the bull with a pike. "Oh, man," say the Americans. "He didn't see that one coming."

Trumpets again, then each of six spears are forced into the bull’s back. Tall men do this, banderilleros. It is the comedy of the fight - unprotected, gangly, streaking across the ring as they shelter from the horns. The clown in a picture with a mutilated man. "Oh, yeah," say the Americans. "See that, it went right in him."

The bull is bleeding profusely now. Mouth open, drool flailing. Blood is a sheen against the black coat, turns red as it pools on the sand. The muscles in his legs begin to tremor. Pucker up, then release. Tight flesh shockwaves. Each pass of the red cape is more pathetic. The crowd cheers. "Come on bull," say the Americans. "You're his bitch now."

More trumpets. Four men draw the bull around the ring. Catch its attention, then pull out of view. Again. Then a third time. The matador comes forward to face the bull. Stands in front of a picture. He has been on the side, had a cup of water, selected a weapon. "Okay, bitch," say the Americans. "Here comes the kill sword."

The matador makes a few more passes. Muleta pulled close. The bull is exhausted, has bled steadily for twenty minutes. He turns to face the matador, bows his head to see the red cape. The final sword is forced in his back behind the horns. "Oh yeah, bitch. He got him good."

He didn't. The matador is a debutante, early in the season. This is not supposed to happen. The bull rights himself, makes another charge. The tremors make him stumble. Blood runs from his hanging mouth. His tongue arches.

The bull is stabbed again. Then again. The crowd boos. The matador is barely a teen. His stance loosens, jacket slumps. He looks a boy, is sulking now.

Men clear the ring. Leave the bull snorting, bleeding. Nine larger bulls run into the arena, nose the pools of blood. The largest tries to mount the wounded bull. He is twice its size. The crowd cheers. The bull dies of exhaustion - humped into martyrdom. "That's it, bitch. That's it."

Five more bulls are killed. Some quick, some slow. Two matadors are trampled, caught on horns and thrown in the air. Trumpets play on.

The final bull has its ears cut off. The matador holds them like flowers, kisses them, looks up to the stadium and bows. It is night now, the artificial light playing off his sequins. Traje de luces, suit of lights. The scene is ridiculous, hetero-camp.

There is laughter on the train home. The metro full but the air empty. Adam Cullen is still on the square. The nut sellers are packing away their carts. He is in his studio, still thinking. It is three years away but he is still drafting his emotions.

``It's still, quote, 'percolating'. The basic draughtsmanship,'' he says. ``The camp and the blood and then the gore and the drama.''

There is a toy bull on a shelf in Cullen's home. Toy blades in its back. On the bed in the spare room, among the yellow down of burst bedding, is a copy of Schopenhauer's Philosophical Writings and what might be a shotgun or maybe a steal pipe.

Erik Jensen

STUPID HEAVEN, by Alan R Dodge, 2007

Around 1507, Albrecht Durer drew a portrait of himself in his mid-thirties. This was not the first self-portrait the German artist had made. There is a fine silver point drawing of him at 13 years of age and another made at the age of 28, in addition to placing himself in paintings (two self-portraits are masterpieces) and other drawings. But Durer’s nude study of c.1507 was different. Durer stares at himself, displaying his nude body with unblinking criticism. Within that gaze is the look of a man of experience, a man with both weariness and hauteur in his eyes. He confronts himself in the mirror with the cruelty of caricature. The brushed-in black ground throws into relief the folds on the right side of his torso and accentuates his bony knees. His genitals are drawn with strength. Here is a man who is both an animal and an intellect, recognising himself as such. Durer has used line to render his surface anatomy with great skill, but the unfinished right arm, the half painted in background imply an unfinished work. However, the work is signed in the upper left hand corner with his characteristic “AD” initials. What is even more surprising in Durer’s drawing is the apparent disjunction between the use of fairly fine cross-hatching to render the volumes of the body faithfully and the treatment of Durer’s face. The lines describing his facial features are spare, sketch-like and take on the appearance of a merciless cartoon. The face is gritty, tough and uncompromising. The portrait could be a 16th century precursor of Adam Cullen’s work.

Cullen’s work, like Durer’s, is the result of endless drawing with an eye focussed on the human condition. In a telephone conversation, Adam stated “I’ve spent my life drawing. I’m just constantly drawing.” 1 It is Cullen’s use of line (as with the head of Durer’s self-portrait) as a calligraphy of caricature that gives the work its strength. Calligraphy is actually the key word. Angry/funny outlines, drips and expressionistic swabs of paint provide a visual vocabulary that brings the canvas alive. Missing in these new works are the spray paint elements that appeared in earlier works. For example in TEMPLAR BIRTH – THE DEVIL IS TIRED IN WAR, Cullen has hoisted a helmeted torso on a pole of applied and dripped paint. In a painting from the year 2000, SHUT UP, NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR YOUR STORIES, another torso with equally small feet is buoyed up on two shafts of sprayed paint. Also, in most works the use of text has diminished, if it appears at all. The energising force of line against mass now dominates more or less completely.

Like Durer, Cullen has travelled and has been constantly on the lookout for armatures in what he sees in the world, the media and in other art. Most recently Cullen travelled to Spain and reacquainted himself with the Prado and its collections and a number of works in the present exhibition are inspired by paintings he saw during this visit. The Prado has long been a fascination for Cullen. For instance, it was at the Prado as a 10 year old that he “was struck dumb” by Goya’s painting of Saturn Devouring His Son. 2 Adam stated that while overseas this time he was interested in historical episodes in Spain’s history. He isolated them all arbitrarily and realised the difficulty of contextualising these episodes in terms of the Australian psyche.

One way into this, though, was through popular culture. WESTERN ASS ALMERIAN SPAGETTI has references in the desert area in southern Spain where a number of the spaghetti westerns were filmed in the days of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, ‘For a Few Dollars More’ and ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, when Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef strutted across the screens. While in Spain, Cullen also got hooked on bullfights. He particularly admired the horses “who were incredibly skilled and lean and look also comic”. 3 For someone who hunts pig and who has been skinning and tanning hides since he was 9 years old, fascination with the bullfight would seem a natural connection. It is possible to read some of the dramatic force and bravado in this contest between man and beast in the way Cullen has so forcefully executed this new body of work.

DO WHAT I DO was inspired by a painting of Christ, which “had so much thorn around his head that it looked like a hair-do”. 4 Adam said it was “like a pun and quite camp”. Another painting, LA MUJER BARBUDA (UNLUCKY ENOUGH TO BE BORN) had its genesis in a painting of an African who has a breast. ART DEALERS – OEDIPUS AND BACCHUS IN OLD AGE conjures up memories of Goya and Dix. In response to my questions about the paintings PROFILE and TESTOSTERONE MUCUS MAN, Adam recalled ads on buses in Spain which used people with Downes Syndrome. 5 While considering works for the Greenaway Art Gallery exhibition, Cullen decided to include a small work entitled BORN A SWINE. He states that the painting “was there when I came back and reminded me of people I saw in Spain”. 6 It has an uneasy relationship with the other works, but to me the sheer attack of gesture makes it bubble with anger and vitality.

Recently Cullen has had a major health challenge which he feels has really changed his attitude. For one thing he says he feels less urgent about things. These new paintings not only have elements of continuity with earlier work, but also have a maturity and a voyeuristic remove about them. Underneath it all sits a vulnerability that hearkens back to the Durer self-portrait of c.1507. Cullen has an eye that is unfailing, a calligraphic repertory which animates the surface, and a view of humanity which is at the same time scathing and humorous. In these works Cullen champions the bizarre, the funny and the pathetic; elements that cast humanity as products of both visceral and conceptual forces. In Cullen’s world man exists in an arena of dysfunctional activity and moral failure.

Alan R. Dodge

1 Adam Cullen, in telephone conversation with the author, June 2007.

2 Ingrid Perez, Adam Cullen: Scars Last Longer, Craftsman House, Fishermans Bend, Victoria, 2004.
3 Adam Cullen, in a telephone conversation with the author, June 2007.

4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

LOOK BEHIND YOU, by Andrew Frost, 2005

Adam's studio is not far from his home in Wentworth Falls. The studio is in the grounds of a house in the Blue Mountains and the view is fantastic. There is nothing but bush land, hills and low strung power lines over the valleys as far as you can see. At night you can see the lights of Newcastle to the east and to the south west the glow of Sydney on the underside of clouds. Apparently the studio – and the house – once belonged to Arthur Boyd's family back in the 1940s and 50s. There's a feel of genteel decrepitude about the place you also get at the Toy & Railway Museum in Leura or at the old hotels and their cocktail lounges in Katoomba. It feels as though history is just hovering over your shoulder. In Adam's studio was a bit of text written on a wall. LOOK BEHIND YOU. I wasn't sure if it was advice or a warning, but it seemed apt either way.
This was the third time I had been into his studio while he had been working on a new show. Adam likes to collect things and put them in his studio, stuck up on the walls or propped up on shelves. There were postcards of his recent series of works for the NSW Rugby Union and the blood of a footballer was still in a vial in a bowl. On a shelf was a photo of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band next to a blue Dolce and Gabbana box. On the floor was a tattoo magazine. And then there were all the paints and brushes. Shades of reds and blues straight out of Dulux tins, artist's acrylics in pots and tubes, spray cans with stalactites of dried paint, and almost none of them with their lids on. The brushes all seemed to be bought from hardware stores. The radio played Triple J.
Adam handed me a book. It was Japanese Erotic Prints: Shunga by Harunobu & Koryusai. He said he had been looking at the prints and how they used space. In traditional Japanese woodblocks, the spatial planes were two dimensional and, if you took the figures out, quite abstract. Adam pointed out that it was the figures in these erotic prints that defined the space and in turn defined the realism [or otherwise] of the whole scene. I realised at once that this is precisely what Adam has been doing for years. In his paintings and drawings figures float on coloured backgrounds with only occasional lines or areas of paint to suggest depth and, on rare occasions, you might find differences in scale that could translate as depth or height.
I asked Adam if the Japanese works were a direct influence on what he was doing. He said that he was taking these works and 'cretinising' them. I've heard him say that before about other things and I've taken it to be a reference to the way he siphons off elements of his influences - bits of TV, tattoo magazines, old music, movies, or random snippets of text - and then distills them down to the essential element that attracted him. It's what makes his work so startling, that energy that blasts out of the canvases.
As we left the studio to have lunch at Adam's house I noticed that he had the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald with a picture of Douglas Wood, the Australian kidnapped in Iraq, in the studio. He said he was going to maybe do a painting based on the figures. Death by execution is one of my strongest fears and I had to look away. It was an odd moment. A few years ago when Adam was going to have a show at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, I had visited his studio and the conversation had turned to the immediate effects of decapitation, perhaps suggested by his recurring image of headless bodies in his paintings.
We drove in separate cars back to his house through the streets of Wentworth Falls. The leaves on the trees were an early May combination of burgundy and scarlet and burnt orange. There was a touch of winter in the air.
Over lunch we discussed his use of colour. In the past Adam had only worked in monochromes, starting with black and white and then with silver. Then around 1999 when he had a show at The Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide, the backgrounds exploded into colour. He stuck with more monochromatic brush work for about two or three years but then the techniques he had perfected in his portraits - masses of coloured paint outlined in black to create images - started to appear in his entire body of work. The latest development is a move to add even more gesture and opacity to the colours and now the paintings flow around the canvas.
So why was he using colours in this way, I wondered. He said it was simple. Art has to compete with the world for our attention, with TV or with newspapers or, as he put it, "all the other wallpaper". It has to cut through the static and say everything it has to say. The subject of Adam's works has been consistent - he depicts animals or people in states of trauma and decomposition and although his works can seem like an assault, there's a real pathos and comedy to the images. That Adam uses himself as a figure of mockery in his work says much about the self deprecating notions he has of his own position as a commentator. Few Australian artists have attempted to create such an ambitious catalogue of our collective failures, sins of the flesh, failures of nerve and will, the complacence of the comfortably well off.
As I drove back to Sydney in the late afternoon shadows were long and dark. I thought of Donald Wood again. I had seen him on TV twice. The first time he looked frightened, kneeling between two hooded men who held guns, pleading for his life. The second time his head was shaven and he'd been beaten so badly his eyes were swollen shut. He could hardly speak. The TV news didn’t let us hear his weak, bruised voice. They paraphrased what he had said with an unemotional voice over. I had wondered how Australians would react when one of our soldiers or a contractor like Wood was captured by the insurgents. The people who had been captured before - the unfortunate American civilians, the British woman who had lived in Iraq for 20 years, the Italian and Japanese journalists, the Filipino truck drivers - they had all squirmed and cried, begged for their lives before most of them were either shot or beheaded. It had all been just too horrible to contemplate. But now that this Australian had been captured, albeit an Australian who was married to an American and lived in the US, there was hardly a squeak.
The silence, the indifference, has been almost total.

Andrew Frost
May, 2005

[essays should not be reproduced without permission from the authors]
Born Australia
Adam Cullen
Bachelor of Fine Arts, City Art Institute
1987 Graduate Diploma of Professional Art Studies, City Art Institute
1999 Master of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales
2000 Winner, Archibald Prize, Art Gallery of NSW
2007 Australia Council Studio, Barcelona
2008 Winner, Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize, NSW
Researching PhD on Aesthetics of Death in Australian Art
2012 Died at home in the Blue Mountains, NSW
2011 Minor Exaltation, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
Yesterday is still here today, Michael Reid, Elizabeth Bay, NSW
2009 A Death Like No Other, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
They You Trust, Them You Don't, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
2008 Let's Get Lost, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
International Manure / Evil / DNA / Blood / Arse, Heiser Gallery, Brisbane
2007 STUPID HEAVEN, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY DAY, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide

2004 Pure Sanctimony, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne
On my Knees Looking Up, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
2003 Future Dirt, Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Adelaide
Far and Away, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Our Place in the Pacific, touring exhibition to regional galleries in Newcastle, Cairns, Gold Coast and Toowoomba
2002 UnAustralian, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
2001 Night and Day, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
The Placebo Effect, Artspace, Sydney
2000 Value, ACCA, Melbourne
Miss Gin Gin Showgirl (with Dale Frank), Hazelhurst Regional Gallery
Interpersonal, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
1999 Blind Side, Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
Hotel/Motel, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Genuine Imitation, First Floor, Melbourne
1998 Amateur Exorcist, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin, NZ
Self-Loving, Fiat Lux, Auckland, NZ
Touch and Go, Level 2 Project, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
World Fantasy, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
1997 Special, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
I Only think about you when I’m drunk, Test Strip, Auckland
Life Fitness, Artspace, Sydney
1996 The Australian Labor Party, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Live Rock, CBD Gallery, Sydney
1995 Class, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Peace is Cool, CBD Gallery, Sydney
1994 Soft Material Facts, Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Special Galore Type, 200 Gertrude Street, Melbourne
Homoerotic, CBD Gallery, Sydney
1993 Software, Selenium Gallery, Sydney
August, CBD Gallery, Sydney
Lucifer (with Matthys Gerber), Yuill/Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Heterocampstick, Black Gallery, Sydney
2011 The Archibald Prize 2011, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney
Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, State Library of NSW, Sydney
2010 Melbourne Art Fair, Greenaway Art Gallery stand, Melbourne
2009 Hybrid, Artereal Gallery, Sydney
2008 Thoughts On Paper, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide
True Crime: murder and misdemeanour in Australian Art, Geelong Gallery, Geelong
Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize, redleaf Council Chambers, Sydney
Blake Prize, NAS Gallery, Sydney
Bon Scott Project, Fremantle Arts Centre, WA
2007 Who let the dogs out, Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, NSW
Salon Des Refuses, S.H. Ervin Gallery, Sydney
2006 Melbourne Art Fair, Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, VIC
2005 The Sound of Painting, George Adams Gallery, the Arts Centre, Melbourne
2004 Extinction Denied, Arthouse, Sydney
Art and About, various outdoor locations, Sydney
The Visibility of Practice, Cell Block, National Art School, Sydney
2003 The Meaning of Everything, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
The Archibald Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
The Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Six Degrees of Separation, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Foxed, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
Anita and Beyond, Penrith Regional Gallery
2002 The Archibald Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Hooky the Cripple, published with Mark Read, Pluto Press, Sydney
Bitter Sweet, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
25th Bienal de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil
ARCO 2002, Madrid Art Fair, Madrid, Spain
Kedumba Drawing Prize, Kedumba Gallery, New South Wales
Group Exhibition, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
2001 Portraits 2001 – An Australian Odessey, Tweed River Regional Art Gallery, and various regional galleries
None More Blacker, 200 Gertrude Street, Melbourne and various regional galleries in VIC and NSW
Painting: an arcane technology, Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne
Group Exhibition, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
2000 Art in the World 2000, Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France
Video-Salon, Week of Art and New Media, Brussels, Belgium
Doug Moran National Portrait Prize, State Library of New South Wales and regional tour
Mosman Art Prize, Mosman Art Gallery, New South Wales
Not Quite Right, Grey Matter Gallery, Sydney
The Archibald Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
The 2000 Sporting Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Blind, Yuill Crowley Gallery, Sydney
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
National Gallery of Victoria
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of South Australia
Art Gallery of Western Australia
Gold Coast City Art Gallery, QLD
Griffith University, QLD
Geelong Art Gallery, VIC
Monash University Gallery, Melbourne
Artbank, Sydney
AMP Australia
Collection of Sir Elton John
Collection of the Honourable Duncan Kerr
Queensland Art Gallery