In the early 1990s Adam Cullen appeared in the documentary Moral Fiction. In it, Adam expanded on his personal philosophy concluding with the statement “I want my death back”. From Adam’s perspective the world deprives us of our essential liberties – the freedom to live as we choose to live and the ability to choose the time and manner of our own deaths. It was a line of thinking that Adam held pretty much for the entire time I knew him.
I met Adam at art art school in 1983 and was around to witness the pig’s-head-chained-to-his-leg performance that became the stuff of media legend. A mutual friend, Paul Terrett, introduced us. Paul told me he’d seen a performance of Adam’s where Adam had started a lawn mower on stage and Paul said we should meet. And so we did. Adam was a very gentle, thoughtful and funny guy, with an unassuming babyish face. Adam walked into the college library one day with the pig’s head and I was blown away by how pretentious it was. This was in the context of a time when a punk kid wore the skin and stuffed head of his cat attached to his leather jacket to painting classes. It seemed like either one-upsmanship by Adam or the sort of lame shock art that he’d be later accused of making. I think the denouement of that now-famous art gesture was its true meaning: he had to sleep with his leg sticking out his bedroom window because it stank so much and when the bus driver wouldn’t let him on the bus he had to abandon the performance. The exploration of his subjectivity had reached a limit beyond which everyday society rejected him. It was a wall he bashed his soul against for the rest of his life.
The myth Adam constructed around himself blinded a lot of people to his incredible talent as a painter. Adam’s subject was himself, although he denied it, and he likewise rejected my assessment that he was essentially a libertarian Romantic. His painting was based in drawing, and an understanding of colour that remains unique. His subjects – masculinity, nationalism – reiterated his world view that everyone should be free without limit. His best work stretches from the early 90’s grunge sculptures and drawings, through the late 90s paintings and into the early 00’s. This ten year stretch was always vigorously inventive, surprising and thrilling. For me, this was Adam at his best and his best work- shocking, hilarious, cutting. What art is meant to be. The later stuff, from about 2004 onwards was occasionally great, but it never reached the heights of his earlier painting, nor was his work consistent. The exhibition Let’s Get Lost at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008 highlighted the great schism that occurred in his work pre and post the Archibald win in 2000 – it was as though the exhibition was cut down the middle – the lean and taught, black and white aesthetic of the early work, the day-glo monsters of the latter years. I recall the excitement of the Archibald win and the palpable sense that something had changed. One of our own had breached the walls of the Academy. The after-party at the Bayswater Brasserie was the stuff of legend – cigars, beers, cognac.
The myth came to replace the old Adam with a new version of “Adam Cullen” that seemed to bear little resemblance to the person I had known. He told me that he hated it, but he fed it too. You’d pick up a weekend supplement with a profile and there would be all the old familiar stories and rehearsed asides – the story of the pig’s head, the accolades from famous and infamous new friends, Adam always saying his girlfriend had just left him and that’s why the place was a mess. The place was always a mess and his girlfriends left him years ago. He’d call me up and tell me he was flying me and my family to Spain to accompany him on his residency and he’d be paying all the expenses. He’d fly into a rage when I said that sounded too good to be true and slam the phone down when I told him I had him on speaker phone [so I could make dinner while he ranted at me]. No one was going to listen in on his conversations, he said.
There was always the hope that he would pull out of the pattern of addiction, sickness and all the false promises of rehab, and pull himself together. He was relatively young and there was still time. But Adam’s curse was that he was smart enough to know that he was trapped but not clever enough, or ultimately honest enough, to admit he wasn’t dying by his own choice but dying because there was now no other option. Sickness led to chronic illness which led to terminal addiction and then eventually to nothing. The sense of inevitability of the news on the weekend was crushing. It could have been different – but it wasn’t.
It seems like a waste – and it is – but at least Adam has left us his legacy: the good, the bad and the ugly, the funny, the insightful and glacial glistening of truth, the dancing black line, the splat of curdled enamel on the infinity of a single colour acrylic. It wasn’t conceptual he always said, it was optical. Just look and you will see.
Picture: Bayswater Brasserie, post Archibald Prize win. Adam Cullen fourth from left. Courtesy Carrie Miller.