Vivid details in artist’s close-up
Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen By Erik Jensen Black Inc, 160pp, $32.99
IT seems rather obvious to describe the behaviour of Adam Cullen as self-destructive. True, he went hard after drugs and drink, steadily destroying his body and dancing with death, skipping in the shadows of Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs and other famous addicts while creating pictures that some critics despised. But another word comes up as Erik Jensen, his friend and biographer, listens to the artist who resented other artists talking about his life.
Cullen has just phoned Mark “Chopper’’ Read, high, hoping to obtain a gun. The line drops out and the conversation moves on to drugs. Cullen mentions that he hasn’t eaten solid food without vomiting for two years, that his diet is mostly milk and juice. “Not infrequently,” Jensen writes, “he seems pathetic.”
It is a brief but telling observation. Acute Misfortune is a fascinating, non-judgmental exploration of the forces that shaped Cullen’s life, and Jensen does his best to keep his distance despite some unique challenges. The story is one of “abused talent and excess pathos”, Jensen explains to artist Dale Frank in an email exchange that opens the book: “I am writing a character study in which art — in the end — is not the most important part.”
The outlines of the story are familiar. Born in Sydney in 1965, Cullen enjoyed notoriety at art school for dragging around a pig’s head chained to his ankle. He was described as an enfant terrible, grouped with the so-called “avant grunge” movement and then won the Archibald Prize with a portrait of David Wenham.
In 2011, he was given a suspended jail sentence for drink driving and weapons offences as a psychiatric report recommended a long-term alcohol rehabilitation program and treatment for bipolar disorder. Eight months later, aged 47, he was dead.
Death appears to have been a regular theme with Cullen, who said art was the only profession where your employer wanted you to die. He had a maudlin, tragicomic relationship with the world.
Jensen asks early in their relationship what caused one large scar, and the response gives his book its title: “Acute misfortune,” Cullen said. “I think the art world caused this.”
Jensen’s achievement is remarkable considering his immersion. After he wrote a profile on Cullen for The Sydney Morning Herald, the artist phoned and asked him to write his biography. Jensen is now something of a seasoned journalist — editor of The Saturday Paper — but back then he was 19 and impulsive. He moved into Cullen’s spare bedroom, drawn to his mischief, intrigued by his reputation and sceptical of his stories.
Cullen’s claim that a publisher wanted the book was clearly a lie, but Jensen stuck around. “I’m not sure what Hunter S. Thompson would say about this,” Cullen said, “but involving friends in your own death wish is fun, dragging people into your own hellhole of adventure. I’m a ticking time bomb. I just like to push things.”
Other less adventurous writers may not have gone the distance. Cullen was, as Jensen points out, an obsessive friend. After the pair spend the day drinking vodka in central-west NSW, Cullen shoots Jensen (by accident), then pushes him from a moving motorbike (deliberately). On another occasion he shoots up on the couch, then urges Jensen to “shower for me”. Another time he wanders into Jensen’s room naked in the middle of the night. And so on, until Jensen has a realisation. “Sitting opposite him, I finally twig: Adam is in love with me.”
Jensen’s real challenge, though, was to sift through the myths and anecdotes that Cullen scattered through his life. Across four years of research, he steps carefully through these stories, allowing Cullen to have his say and then adding an inconvenient fact or two that changes their impact entirely. He shows the games Cullen plays with the media, the carefully crafted provocations that make great copy, and stays patient while Cullen lays bare his thoughts on life, death and art. “Artists are f..king wankers and it’s almost embarrassing to be one,” Cullen says at one point.
This is not a conventional biography, the kind of scholarly book that sets out a meticulous chronology with footnotes and an index, nor should it be. (That said, a few more photographs of the artist at home would have been welcome.) The book is broken up into a series of episodes and divided into themes. It begins, naturally, with Death. Other chapters include Mother (a volatile relationship tempered after she dies), Father (“Da is my hero”), Archibald (“the best day of my life”), Sex (“You probably know I’m on the border of bisexual”) and Drugs,
The author describes the works of Adam Cullen, above, as ‘paintings of anxiety painted from anxiety’