ADAM CULLEN: Stupid Heaven



4 - 29 Jul 2007


Exhibition text by Alan R. Dodge

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 selfportraits 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