We walked over to Yuill/Crowley Gallery with some trepidation. The “word on the street” was that Adam Cullen’s latest show On My Knees Looking Up was a holding pattern for the artist – nothing bad, but then again nothing new. Cullen has been going up and up with each show and even the ones that seemed at the time to be just ‘good’ were, in retrospect, fantastically concentrated bursts of invention. He’s an artist who’s just got better and better over the years and it wouldn’t be cruel or unusual to suggest that he could reach a plateau or just coast along for awhile quite happily doing his thing and God knows he’d deserve it. So as we traveled up in the creaky lift in the Y/C building with a couple of chaps from the Handsome Boy Modeling Schoolon their way to Chadwicks, we were nervous – and we don’t mean homosexual panic…
As we walked into the gallery we knew any talk of plateaus and coasting was a nonsense. There was a huge screaming monkey head greeting us called Corporate Stooge. Then there was a picture of a woman with motorbike handle bars on her back called BMX BABY, another one with a stick of dynamite stuck up her arse… There was a bald man in a barrel, antennas sticking out of his head and a tap for a penis. There was a picture of Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian and a four panel work called Exercising The Greater Angles of Our Nature that featured, left to right, a wolf in a business suit, a cheap tart type movie star crossed with Marilyn Monroe, a hooded IRA style thug and, finally, a dead horse.
The shocks were there alright, but anyone who knows Cullen’s work also knows that he’s way more than just that. The Ali/Sebastian picture is a good example of a technique that the artist has been using for a while. He paints incredibly messed up masses of colours – in this case a fleshy yellow concoction with white and red – and then paints outlines and shapes over the top in black. The simplicity of the lines in Ali’s head, especially the eyes, are breathtaking. We get all cynical about painting until we see how great it can be and then we fall in love all over again, and this was a case of being seduced by sheer technique. Cullen’s amazing talent lies in his ability to marshal two dimensional, non-representational gushes of colour into representational images and do it without cheap tricks – the black lines are just as assured as the backgrounds, almost calligraphic and Zen-like in their execution and simplicity.
We have always liked the artist’s techniques – sure – but the thing that elevates Cullen into a whole other level – and one that fellow artists will happily (or grudgingly) admit to eventually – is that he places another, more persuasive layer on top of his technique. Cullen’s autobiographical and conceptual approach means that the works have a muscular nature that some people find disturbing and daunting. It’s steak and chips, we reckon, it’s the kind of soul food you imagine people ate in the depression when they got rich – pots of strong black coffee, unfiltered cigarettes stubbed out in congealed egg yolk when they’re done. Actually, it’s kind of like Martin Kippenberger meets Ernest Hemingway. Maybe we’ve been fans of Cullen for too long, but to us this looks pretty damn good.