Vivid de­tails in artist’s close-up

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Ash­leigh Wilson

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’

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