Adam Cullen: Acute misanthropy

Still from Acute Misfortune (2018, Dir. Thomas M. Wright). Courtesy Arenamedia

Thanks to Erik Jensen’s 2014 book, Acute Misfortune, and its film adaptation of the same name—directed by Thomas M. Wright and released in 2018—the legacy of Adam Cullen, and his Gen‑X revanchism, have crept back into the Australian artworld of late. Both Jensen’s biography and Wright’s biopic are ambiguous, even ambivalent, about Cullen’s actual work. They don’t so much re‑examine his practice as situate it in the background of his embittered, self‑dramatised life, illuminating secrets rather than talents. Jensen concludes that Cullen was likely a closet bisexual with severe mummy and daddy issues; his complicated neediness communicated through lies, innuendos and between bouts of grievous bodily harm caused to himself and those around him. 

After reading Jensen’s book, I couldn’t get 1993 out of my head, thinking about Cullen’s practice. 1993: A year far enough away from the postmodern eighties but early enough not to be just a precursor to the new millennium and its procession of recessions and crises. It is the year Cullen had his first solo exhibition (Heterocampstick at Black Gallery, Sydney); the first critical reviews published on his work (in Art + Text and World Art); his first national exhibition (Australian Perspecta, curated by Victoria Lynn); and the start of his commercial representation with Yuill/Crowley gallery. 

In broader cultural terms, 1993 also marks the height of queer discourse. According to a wistful Wayne Koestenbaum essay, it is precisely the year in which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was at her peak.[1] Eve and Adam: two strange bedfellows I just can’t resist placing side‑by‑side here—one synonymous with affect and attachment, the other with grunge and animosity. Against the “lavishly invested … mind‑teasing allure” of Sedgwick’s prose, Cullen gives us flat, cursory, dead‑end works.[2] At a time when appropriation and performance were helping to put stigmatised identities (queer and postcolonial art) on the museological map, his avant‑grunge work in hindsight seems so full of resentment towards this supposed heyday of cultural fluidity.

The 1993 Whitney Biennial today represents a paradigm-shift in the art of our identity-obsessed times as it showed such prescient sensitivity to socio-cultural differences. In contrast, Cullen’s adolescent-style anger and cynicism—presented in the form of bricolaged beer kegs, bandaged and taxidermied cats and two-word text paintings that snarkily reads “AS IF”—corresponds with the reactionary critiques and politically correct pushback that Biennial famously generated.[3]

Still with us today is a very nineties realisation: That any progress societies make in acknowledging the singular, roundabout and intersectional ways of identity will come accompanied by “hectoring, would‑be‑populist derision.”[4] As Sedgwick observed in Tendencies (1993), those on both the left and right who are opposed to the allusiveness of queer’s identitarianism often act as if their own cultural sign systems offer, by contrast, instant, unmediated, and universal accessibility. For the anti‑politically correct artist of the nineties, to indulge in the labours and pleasures of interpretation (the “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps”) was to unnecessarily obfuscate the self‑evident.[5] In other words, for every Renée Green and Fiona Foley there is a Damien Hirst and Adam Cullen never too far away; anti‑intellectuals who provide bleaker, blunter, more sceptical home truths, who perform the “shaming risibility of any form of oblique or obscure expression … .”[6]

To many people, Cullen is the guy who first came to prominence with crude, Dantesque slacker‑sculptures, before turning to painting in the mid‑nineties, becoming something of a neo‑neoexpressionist from then on. Aping Jean‑Michel Basquiat’s image‑text juxtapositions by way of Francis Bacon’s instantaneity, he produced caricatured portraits and drippy, tattoo‑like illustrations on canvas, flaunting an intentionally cheap, zomboid‑felon aesthetic. 

Over the course of the nineties, Cullen shifted from one artworld (let’s say an internationally aware one) to another (let’s say a nationalistic self‑absorbed one). For conservatives, his embrace of painting affirmed its perpetually reborn status, as a more financially viable corrective to youthful forays into conceptualism. The American artist Dash Snow, emerging in the early 2000s, is an obvious point of comparison: a Vice‑styled, slumming rich kid destructionist who died of a heroin overdose in 2009 at the age of twenty‑eight. But Cullen, who grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney (the cousin of actor Max Cullen), is in my mind more like a bad boy version of David Bromley, someone who pumped out poor quality paintings for years without losing his commercial footing in that other Australian artworld known through Archibald prizes, contrived tabloid controversies and starry‑eyed art‑historical branding. 

Cullen’s paintings of headless women registered as provocative, as did his collaborations with Mark “Chopper” Read. All this was gobbled up by newspaper editors who had no real interest in art, underwritten by simplistic references to the great Spanish Romantic painter Francisco Goya, whose influence—an unholy feeling for human violence—was peddled by a number of Cullen’s contemporaries in the alternative nineties, including Jake and Dinos Chapman.

In his biography, Jensen generally skirts around Cullen’s work, and, when it is addressed, it is often with qualifications: “the paintings, when they were good …”; or “his career reached exceptional heights, work that was occasionally sublime, but he seemed intent on …”[7] In these and other passages it is as if the author knows deep down that Cullen’s works are mostly slipshod but is wary of wasting the reader’s time detailing the life of an artist whose relevance seem to disappear with his death in 2012. It is telling, for instance, that in the six years since Jensen’s book was published, no serious reappraisal of Cullen’s work has been staged by an Australian museum. I’d also bet we are unlikely to see one anytime soon without considerable revisionist legwork—something which most state‑run art institutions are not prepared to do anymore unless promised the prize of populism, cost‑savings or the moral high ground. 

How do we separate Cullen’s Australian‑Irish larrikinism from, say, the artist who had an apprehended violence order against him; who professed his admiration for skinheads and whose practice devolved into misogynist and bigoted dog whistling? That Cullen was in some respects right to rail against the growing virtuousness of the creative left—where personal opinion is routinely sublimated into moral finger‑pointing—does nothing to diminish the dim‑witted spitefulness of many of the works, which, especially the later ones, are often the fine‑art equivalent of Reddit troll posts. 

In Jensen’s prologue to Acute Misfortune, taking the form of an email exchange with the painter Dale Frank, Jensen claims (to his reader as much as to his interlocutor) that he wants to avoid paying lip service to Cullen’s notorious vainglory; he is “not looking for stories to embroider a myth.”[8] But, by the book’s end, the Cullen mythology is well and truly inflamed, even if now punctured by pop‑psychology rationalisations. Cullen emerges not as a “tragic” figure in the Ancient Greek sense of the word but the Urban Dictionary one. He comes off as an artist who either through psychological scarring, addiction, sexual confusion or ineptitude, bought into the superficial registers of his supposed artistic exceptionalism without a lot of dignity. Having curated Cullen in the prototypical 1993 grunge‑art exhibition Rad Scunge at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in Melbourne, Frank suggests to Jensen, with surprising precision, that he was “just one young artist among many”; a talent “wasted in an art environment full of jostling equal talent.”[9] To this end, the lingering achievement of Jensen’s book, intended or not, is that it is able to weld Cullen’s transparent ambitions (as someone owed the status of being “the next Brett Whiteley”) to yet another opaque braggadocio Australian cultural narrative.[10] 

As a film, Acute Misfortune mostly side‑steps the syrupy biopic genre of “journalist growing with their subject” due to its minimalist screenplay and tight editing, elements found lacking in similar journalist‑centred biopics on David Foster Wallace (The End of the Tour, 2015) and Fred Rogers (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, 2019). Cullen’s repressed sexual attraction comes off as the film’s central conceit, but it also focuses on the reciprocity of the author‑subject relation, yielding micro portraits of both characters, however unclear their interactions. Played by Daniel Henshall, who summons about seventy percent of his ominousness from Snowtown, (2011), Cullen is framed through Jensen’s (played by Toby Wallace) peculiarly passive exchanges with him as a prospective biographer and likely obituarist. 

Adam Cullen Maiden Handicap, 2004 acrylic on canvas Photo courtesy Flinders Street Gallery, Sydney "The Estate of Adam Cullen"
Licensed by Viscopy 2020

The journalist’s motivation for continuing to spend time at Cullen’s Blue Mountains home after being shot and purposely thrown off a motorbike can be put down to naive professionalism but also to genuine attraction, even if to a concocted, stifling artistic persona. In reality, both characters were likely consumed by their own artist–rebel egos, each using the other to live out their Hunter S. Thompson or Martin Kippenberger fantasies, with only one of them old enough to have known better. The biographer’s job in this context is to keep perspective as one is losing it, to scrutinise even when being drawn into a subject’s lies, fantasies, addictions and labyrinthian familial relationships.  

All this makes for a sad portrait, not just of Cullen but, obliquely, of the Australian art scene as well. Underpinning the Cullen narrative is the artworld’s shift from neo‑avant‑gardism to alternativism: the long rise of overeducated creative rebels, and the paradox of an alternative mainstream. It marks the start of a contemporary period where, as Chris McAuliffe notes in a review of Rad Scunge, art movements (“isms”) have been replaced by “tendencies” (things artists are simply interested in).[11] Because of unenlightened art‑institutional gate‑keepers in Australia at the time, the “tendencies” that received the most air time were still those of predominantly white middleclass men, who, no longer sheltering their self‑aggrandising behind postmodern theory, let it all hang loose in the nineties with a mix of tabloid‑tailored self‑fashioning and dyslexic, postgrad‑induced art‑historical legitimations. Cue the Ned Kelly portraits, neo‑expressionist gesticulations, barfly clichés and graffitied art‑bro paths Cullen paved for the likes of Ben Quilty, TV Moore, David Griggs and Anthony Lister, among many others. 

It doesn’t help Cullen’s reputation that Jensen’s knowledge of art history is as scattershot as his subject’s. Critical context for the populist bad boy’s work is reduced to the odd Goya, Sidney Nolan and Kippenberger references. These are juxtaposed with prudently recounted write‑ups from, say, the Good Weekend section of The Sydney Morning Herald, as if returning to a time when newspaper art critics were still respected conduits of subterranean art worlds (worlds now thoroughly filled with daylight and littered with artists holding honours, masters and doctoral qualifications).

Roberta Smith once described the life of German artist Kippenberger as “an extended, alcohol‑fuelled performance piece.”[12] The same could be said of Cullen’s life after reading about his own drinking and drug habits, not to mention when watching YouTube footage of his court appearances in his end days, looking shrunken yet satiated, as always, by the limelight. Kippenberger is named as the key influence on Cullen, but it is likely he saw only the bravado in Kippenberger’s work and not its frenetic intelligence and self‑effacement. Cullen’s Life Fitness (Sophisticated Nagging) (1995–96)—involving two Daihatsu Centro cars filled to the brim with empty Tooheys Dry bottles—is so derivative of Kippenberger (it was created when the German was dying of liver cancer) that it now looks like the work of an antipodal fan boy: an irreverent autobiographical‑alcoholic metaphor delivered, Buster Keaton style, through unassuming readymades.

Diedrich Diederichsen has argued that Kippenberger was a “selbstdarsteller,” meaning, in German, both a self‑publicist and a self‑performer, the latter implying a sense of sincerity and humility that comes from being able to see one’s own character as more than the sum of its expressions.[13] Instead of being kindred spirits, I can actually imagine Cullen becoming the target of one of Kippenberger’s droll takedowns, like those he addressed to his more self‑believing compatriots Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, not to mention his needling reversal of the inflated Joseph Beuys dictum “everyone is an artist” to the slyly more accountable “every artist is a person.”

Lost on Cullen was another Kippenberger aphorism: “You may behave like an asshole, but you must never be one.”[14] As much as Kippenberger rode the wave of neo‑expressionism in West Germany he also served as its greatest parodist, fascinated by its painterly myths, but also, after Roland Barthes, “reconstituting” and “artificializing” them, taking cues from Francis Picabia and Sigmar Polke as well as from Warhol.[15] In fact, sincere‑silliness is the Kippenberger brand, always between pathos and bathos, screening traumas in wordy witticisms. To posit Cullen as being in a similar vein would be to see him as a vacillating “avant‑grunge” satirist of sorts, a label which he defensively, and self‑seriously, railed against.[16]  

No dandy, Cullen’s half‑baked profundities and documented self‑destruction were the side‑effects of an indie‑wallower. Betraying his rehearsed existentialism was a desire for an art‑historical afterlife, for ego‑gratifying endurance prizes handed out by the likes of the late former Art Gallery of New South Wales director Edmund Capon, among other out‑of‑touch co‑conspirers. After winning the Archibald Prize in 2000 with a portrait of the actor David Wenham, Cullen, fittingly, became its popular personification, of a prize that has launched a thousand anachronistic expressionists, and one Anh Do, into the nation’s psyche. But, rather than being remembered as holding up a drunken, nightmarish mirror to our world (as claimed by various critics, including Sebastian Smee and Tessa Laird), today Cullen embodies a conservative preference for art that is subsumed by predictably downtrodden biographical narratives. All of his output was routed, umbilical‑like, through his misanthropic persona, as if averse to anything “progressive” like the challenging of epistemological assumptions or the staging of socio‑political struggles. 

Jeff Gibson’s prophetic, oft‑quoted 1993 “Avant‑Grunge” article for Art + Text situated the low‑fi turn of nineties Australian art in terms of grunge’s culture of “second‑degree white trash,” which he describes as a “high subcultural form” steeped in “an inner‑city [Sydney] arte povera.”[17] Gibson’s point was that the artists in Rad Scunge—particularly the less “nice” male artists such as Cullen, Hany Armanious and Troy Skewes—performed generic affronts to art‑world propriety, as if engaging in an “aesthetic fart contest” that could only lead to a neo‑expressionistic dead‑end.[18] What we now also recognise is that the uncanny realism of grunge art in Australia surfaced in tension with the social‑agenda realism of identity art, the latter synonymous with the “return of the subject” in this “after postmodernism” period. 

More than any of Gibson’s other examples, Cullen was both informed and threatened by the confessional, marginal and sexual dimensions of this new‑fangled politics of identity, disavowing institutional legitimacy and the primacy of the subject even as he relentlessly pursued both. For these reasons, the resentment (especially Nietzschean ressentiment) typically levelled at exponents of identity politics—who are accused of offering up themselves as victims, expecting the dominant social Other to pay for the pain—applies equally to their self‑proclaimed adversaries, like Cullen, who want and hate what they cannot have. In portraying him as a closed and closeted Gen‑X artist, Acute Misfortune perhaps inadvertently lets us see Cullen’s works, and their material significations of otherness, as like rocks in a dam wall; as elements of a personal mythology built against the throng of more honest, interested and life‑affirming identities. 


  1. ^ Wayne Koestenbaum, “Riding the escalator with Eve,” Figure it Out, New York: Soft Skull Press, 2020
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 205
  3. ^ See Charles A. Wright Jr., “The mythology of difference: Vulgar identity politics at the Whitney Biennial,” Afterimage, 21/2, September, 1993, pp. 4–8 ;Amelia Jones, Seeing differently: A history and theory of identification and the visual arts, New York: Routledge, 2012
  4. ^ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Tendencies, Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p. 18
  5. ^ Ibid., p. 8
  6. ^ Ibid., p. 18
  7. ^ Erik Jensen, Acute Misfortune, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2014, pp. 47, 85
  8. ^ Ibid., p. 11
  9. ^ Ibid., p. 8
  10. ^ Ibid., p.3
  11. ^ Chris McAuliffe, “Trad Rad,” Art and Australia, vol. 31, no. 1, Spring 1993, p. 142
  12. ^ Roberta Smith, “Ruling the roost,” New York Times, 17 February 2012
  13. ^ See Alison Gingeras, “Performing the self: Martin Kippenberger,” Artforum 42, no. 2, October 2004, pp. 253–55
  14. ^ Jerry Saltz, “The Artist Who Did Everything,” New York Magazine, 26 February 2009
  15. ^ Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 149
  16. ^ See Kit Messham-Muir, “Adam Cullen: Grunge and Rage,” Cooks Hill Galleries, 18 August 2017
  17. ^ Jeff Gibson, “Avant-Grunge,” Art + Text 45, May 1993), pp. 23–25
  18. ^ Ibid., p. 25.

Wes Hill is Senior Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Southern Cross University, Lismore.