Is Adam Cullen the bad boy of Australian art?
Adam Cullen’s larger than life persona has sometimes overshadowed his art; this exhibition brings the focus back to his remarkable paintings and sculptures which brought him to art world attention in the first place.
This is Cullen’s first survey show in an art museum. Cullen has a substantial body of work from the last 15 years and has a strong presence in the Sydney art scene, controversially winning the Archibald prize in 2000. While Cullen is best known for his paintings, this exhibition of some 35 works also includes early ‘grunge’ sculptures which introduce key themes in his practice.
Cullen’s abrasive yet expressive paintings are a confronting, incisive and at times humorous view of life as we live it now. His often satirical paintings are a form of social allegory, a portrait of our national psyche caught in a suspended stage of development.
Adam Cullen is also an Australian artist. While this is a truism in that Cullen was born, lives and works in Australia, he is also one of the few artists of his generation who works within a ‘national’ idiom. Cullen paints types, stereotypes and genres that have been identified as ‘Australian’: larrikins, bushrangers, drovers, footy players, beauty queens and antiheroes including criminals, prostitutes and drunkards. He also regularly depicts a particular type of soft-bellied, butt-crack-exposing, balding older male who seems as overly familiar as Donald Bradman or budgie-smugglers.
However, it is not just in this iconography that his Australianness can be located, but in a space he embodies in his work, a fractured space as much psychological as it is physical, one in which broken mirror shards reflect back to us our sense of self and nation as equally fragmentary, shattered and coming apart.
A dark sense of humour pervades Cullen’s work. He doesn’t hesitate to go for slapstick in images or titles, but it is always the sort of humour that makes us feel uncomfortable; we’re not quite sure if laughing would be funny or cruel.
Wayne Tunnicliffe, exhibition curator, says “Cullen’s paintings are raw, aggressive and angry with, at times, a narcotic intensity. They are also empathic, melancholic and expressive. In many paintings, beauty can be found in such formal elements as his use of colours, the ways paint is applied to canvas, how people, words and things are arranged on the monochromatic backgrounds. The pathos of his subject matter also has a form of abject beauty, the beauty of the decayed and coming apart, of a humanity that is to be found in failed endeavours, misunderstandings and missed connections.”