Adam Cullen: Looking for the man
Alex Gawronski
 
 
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Adam Cullen, End everything,
ink, enamel & acrylic on
board 120 x 24 cm,
1998.

Confronting Adam Cullen’s work is to confront a conundrum. Initially the work appears brash, crude, goache, even insulting. On closer inspection, however, Cullen's work displays a keen eye for abstraction and for more or less traditional painterly qualities. What binds these principle attributes is a wit and humor that is simultaneously abrasive, confrontational and illuminating. The content of his comic repertoire often revolves around issues of national and gendered identity. Ultimately Cullen produces work that is politically engaging whilst also being somewhat adolescent and self consciously puerile.

Cullen is a prolific practitioner recently voted one of Australia's most collectable contemporary artists. Yet if the content of his humour were as confronting or as stringent as it appears superficially, how then do we explain its eminently marketable qualities? Could Cullen's work be equated with another Australian enfant terrible, Juan Davila? Or does the artist who once boasted a cat embalmed in resin as representative of his practice operate in an entirely dissimilar fashion?

While an artist like Davila relies upon an imported and specifically Latin American legacy of political activism and savage satire, Cullen is an artist of a peculiarly Australian sensibility. He is engaged in interrogating myths of national identity. However obliquely, Cullen's work addresses issues around racial intolerance, bigotry, sexism and political and social hypocrisies. His work skirts uneasily the borders of active engagement, at the same time dislodging some of society's least attractive myths. One of the most potent of these is the myth of the antipodean barbarian. This character inhabits the half-world of an unformed culture that is suspicious of the cultured; free to plunder a present which is otherwise harsh and ever present. Somewhat akin to the proto-typical existential, male hero, albeit debased and caricatured, the dramatic personnae of Cullen's oeuvre claim the world in all its unflinching banality. Beyond the stubbies, the backyard suburban existence, the car yards, the ever-eventless highways, there is nothing. Similarly Cullen's paintings function as placards, as layered texts of inconsequentiality behind which an also apparent emptiness lurks. The artist represents himself as a scavenger of meaning, ever searching for signs of a peripheral though significant otherness while simultaneously admitting the futility of such a quest.

The apparent hollowness of Cullen's art may be attributed to one of his more controversial statements in which he refers to the "redundancy of the male". It is this socially engendered inner-redundancy that forces the male creator into a perpetual cycle of self-repetition and self-representation to which there is no end, no resolution. Where better to look for signs of masculinity in art history than in the gestural abstractions of nineteen fifties American painting. Cullen himself has admitted a sneaking admiration for painters like Ad Reinhardt, Barnett Newman, even Jackson Pollock. All of these artists were engaged in a truly Modernist tradition of self-reflection or what could be called, painting from the inside-out. They used gesture as a means of reinvesting American art whilst freeing it from the narrow dictates of the descriptive and picaresque.

Cullen on the other hand critiques the gestural by refusing notions of interiority. For him every gesture is as empty as an over used slogan. The Expressionist aesthetic tradition, once buoyed up by Greenberg's transcendent rhetoric, is shown to have long since been superceded. Today it is a tradition that has been irredeemably overrun by postmodern cynicism and intellectual inquiry that has left it theoretically flaccid and insubstantial. 'Cullen is similarly dismissive of expressive purity, treating the painterly gesture as banal rather than heroic. The artist has not inherited a faith in the power of expression, rather his gesture, while evoking this painterly tradition, denies and defaces that tradition simultaneously, erasing the mark at the very site of its inscription.

Traditionally, in the litany of bourgeois good taste, art and culture are represented as inevitably enlightened, good, rewarding, healthy and meaningful. In response to the traumatising effects of the Second World War, the Dadaists questioned this artistic ideal with work that illuminated the ugly underside of human culture. Cullen is similarly seduced by the possibility of producing art which is bad; banal, negative, ugly and amoral. He envisages an art which is crap and which has the capacity to challenge bourgeois morality. At the same time the artist is aware of how predicatable and ineffectual such artistic strategies have become, and impotently admits that the art market is able to accomodate and neutralise the nastiness. On the one hand Cullen suggests art's value lies entirely in its monetary worth, on the other he sees it as a vehicle for the self-conscious interrogation of popular iconography. For him much of this iconography centres on past musicians and celebrities, from Frank Sinatra and various jazz greats to perhaps less talented personalities like Julio Iglesias, equally as luminous in their popularity. What distinguishes these characters is their capacity to suggest a cozier nostalgic past as well as their currency as household names. Ultimately they are figures etched into mass consciousness by their very commonness and popularity, their names as recognisable as Mortein and Corn Flakes. Nevertheless Cullen employs references to such figures in his work in a strangely lyrical fashion. Certain phrases in his paintings tend to read as the words of imaginary tragicomic musical compositions. However, while certain streams of Modernity sought to unify the disparate disciplines of painting and music, any references to the aural in Cullen's work, no matter how lyrical, are irretrievably fractured from their sources appearing as warped as any relic of a dust encrusted record stuck in its groove. For this artist music, like painting, is the detritus of experience in its most codified representational form.

The retrospective and museological aspect of Cullen's art stands in stark contrast to the artist's own musical interests. The cultural figures he refers to may inhabit a cheesier universe, however they are depicted in an attitude that traces a separate lineage to the late seventies and the dawning of punk. Cullen has said that he always paints to music which is invariably by hard-core punk bands like The Meat Puppets, Scraping the Foetus Off the Wheel, Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers. Cullen views these bands with pretences to political, even revolutionary motivation with a wry humour. To him it is the background noise of white middle-class boys. Cullen relishes his own middle class origins and while glorying in all that is white (male) trash, despises it at the same time. It is an inescapable paradox, one the artist celebrates and one he denigrates. Cullen is entertained by the likes of Henry Rollins, that muscular masochistic punk poet, whom he views as a kind of paragon of male aggression whose political drives appear equally and intimately bound to a libido in denial. What results, Cullen suggests, is a creative economy where content and motivation are mutually annulled leaving a frenetic yet hollow remainder. Rollins' aggression is floating and directionless. Cullen's is similarly disposed though irony suggests perhaps a greater self-consciousness. Whereas pop stars proclaim to be able to speak for the masses and to influence and elicit positive action, it is deferral to the impossibility of art’s capacity to alter popular opinion that lurks behind much of Cullen's work. Like the promise of that muscled masculinity, evidence of specific maleness in his work exceeds itself over and over in the spirit of a Bataillean comedy of excess. Here masculinity is mastubatory and scatological, the gesture merely repeats and is the meager shit from which a work is composed. Overall the male is depicted as socially and culturally irredeemable, though not entirely without charm.

Stylistically Cullen's paintings borrow as much from popular graffiti as they do from art historical sources. By doing so the artist questions the boundaries that traditionally separate art from life. If painting is an art of refinement then graffiti represents an attempt at immediate expression. The brand of graffiti Cullen most regularly draws from is significant as it is of a type that aims directly at engaging our opinion while at the same time beggaring instant comprehensibility. It is not graffiti of the somewhat more rarefied and in many respects more artful works of tag teams, whose large colorful and often structurally adventurous murals consciously evade immediate literal comprehension. Cullen is attracted to the incidental pathos of disaffection whose scrawlings are to be found in innumerable, predominantly male toilets everywhere and whose content reveals something of regional frustrations, anxieties and local humour. This is Cullen's Lascaux, the domain of his archeology, his anthropology and of his own common experience. Here we find works that are brutal, derisive, pathetic, occasionally witty and all of which clamor for our complicity, despite or perhaps as a result of their anonymity. The public toilet is an intermediary domain, a locus for the most banal actions and a site for the unseemliness of the most banal thoughts and desires, the mid-way point between movements. For Cullen, art doesn't get any better than this. There is nothing more involving for him than the publicly hidden though eminently predictable mysteries of the public toilet. Cullen's art is a mirror to society and the means by which the artist's personality is both revealed and obliterated by traces of common knowledge, media intervention and popular entertainment.

This obliteration of the self speaks something of a death-drive and of an inevitable procession to the end of things. I've Been Alive For Ages, reads one of his works, the pun functioning as much through its blankness as its apparent equivocation. Another of his works End-Everything depicts a grotesquely rendered cartoon of Jadyn Leskie, who became media famous as the tragic innocent murdered by his mother's lover while she was "down-the-pub," bored, pissed and entirely oblivious to the fate of her son. Before the work’s actual title, also emblazoned on the canvas itself, are the words, "Go Manly". This phrase functions ironically to conjure everything from zealous regionalism, to the brute physicality of New South Wale’s favourite sport (rugby league), and the encouragement given to males to behave in ways that are unfeeling, ruthless and potentially even murderous. Works of this ilk betray evidence of a palpable dread and refer to events more real than real and to actions beyond experience and words. The manner in which they are represented however stands in stark contrast to their grave seriousness, becoming as spindly and precarious as Cullen's calligraphy. His empty outlines are distinctly two-dimensional and ultimately dispassionate. Cullen contributes nothing of a humanist kind since, for him, art cannot admit sentimentality. Art is a constellation of signs representing concepts that are, in this case, apparent though less than concrete. It is the ambivalence of such works that seeks to disturb, works in which humour, at its blackest and most extreme, operates at the knowing expense of the helpless and underprivileged. As Cullen might argue, this is the way capitalism functions anyway and this is why the end game of painting and of art has caused an infinite multiplication of possible symbolic juxtapositions rendering it an act of randomness and indiscrimination.

More generally, Cullen's work addresses itself to imagery of a deadly comic import. His menagerie consists of beasts, half-human demons, and scrawny bat-like creatures, vampires with distinct references to occultism, more of the suburban than of the studious Aleister Crowley variety. Backyard Satanism sensationalised by the media is linked to a long, venerable and largely medieval tradition of gargoyles and grotesquerie. However, the goblins of yore may have inspired great fear in the hearts of the masses, today they serve primarily as a focus for the fantasies of adolescents and eccentrics. The latter cling to the dark mysteries as a means of superceding what they perceive as the boredom of contemporary culture in which all representational modes have been leveled and are ultimately interchangeable.

Also controversial is Cullen's treatment of Koori motifs. The artist is aware of how sensitive this topic is yet again refuses compassion or empathy directly. A work like Underpants Dreaming in which a crude line drawing of a pair of y-fronts disentangles itself in a forlorn mass of pseudo-aboriginal concentric patterning, could be said to humorously address the deflation of Western artistic tradition along with its associated spiritual traditions. However the work might just as easily be referring to the marketplace's eagerness to consume equally the approximation of adolescent scribblings executed by a white artist on the one hand and the intricate native cosmologies of the country's indigenous people on the other. Whichever the interpretation it is still cynicism that wins out in the end. The marketplace is represented as a blind beast that, like the artist's work, does not concern itself directly with ethical expressions. Another painting, The Age and Size of the World, represents an intestinal coil of similarly disposed concentric lines, over which Ayers Rock has been sprayed and under which the words, "Think Wank" are writ large. In this instance the work seems to suggest that superficial concerns for an art work’s mere historical significance are directly related to the potency of the Freudian phallus, for in both instances it is the size that matters most. Likewise the work might also refer to Western culture's colonial inflation of the value of exotic otherness that debases the content of artistic products at the expense of their cultural significance. In these works Cullen is trespassing on sacred ground and entering taboo territory, yet to in doing so he may also be revealing the mechanisms that allow such trespass to occur. For some, meaning is as flat as a Central Australian horizon, for others its richness is to be revealed holistically in its topographical aspect.

The difficulty of Adam Cullen's art lies in its ambivalence. If an art form exists merely to proclaim its impotency then perhaps in the end that is all there is. Similarly if art is merely the impersonal medium for its own degradation as a cynical response to a marketplace that nevertheless still rewards its productions handsomely, then is it enough to be merely cynical? If the answer were yes (or alternatively, doesn't matter) then perhaps Cullen's work is simply smug and complacent, the bad-boy art of an insular scene.

Ultimately though these are purely ethical questions and as Max Ernst noted in his Dadaist days, "Art is not a question of taste (or of ethics). Art is not there to be tasted. Art exists in order to raise questions whose answers, if I knew them, would cause me to cease being an artist". For all its puerile postulating and from-the-hip witticisms, Cullen's art raises some serious questions about artistic and social responsibility and about the possible continuity of painterly traditions in art. His is also an art that traces a notable ancestry. If Cullen's work cannot equal the artistic means or political scope of Goya's, Goya’s work nevertheless imprints upon his. Both concern themselves with social comment and are distinctly of their time and milieu. Cullen's most affective work engages us first through its humour, a humour that often elicits a response despite the better intentions of our respective consciousness. Stripped of its aura, art cuts through the shit and leaves us on the street laughing at ourselves and at the self-importance of our enterprises.

Alex Gawronski
1999

the artist
Courtesy of the artist.

   
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Adam Cullen, Jazz youth
ink & enamel on
board 120 x 240 cm,
1998.

   
 

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Adam Cullen, The man in
white
ink, detail, enamel &
acrylic on board
120 x 80 cm, 1998.

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Adam Cullen, Everyday I
get half hour older
ink & enamel
on board 120 x 240 cm,
1998