ADAM CULLEN: Let me tell you about my day



25 May – 19 Jun 2005


Exhibition text: "Look Behind You"
By Andrew Frost, May, 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 Heraldwith 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