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Adam CULLEN (b.1965; d.2012)

Photo of ArtistAdam Cullen was born in Sydney in October 1965 to parents, Kevin and Carmel. He grew up in the beachside suburb of Collaroy and had a happy childhood, attending Wheeler Heights Primary School and then Cromer High. *

Cullen was passionate about drawing from a young age and, as a teenager, drew cartoons for the local Collaroy Plateau newspaper. ** Childhood friends remember him for his precocious artistic talent and his cheeky wit. School friend Jason Martin, who remained close to Cullen throughout his life, remembers him this way: “He loved drawing and stirring.” ***

He travelled extensively with his family and was exposed to masterpieces in museums across Europe. Rather than finding inspiration in the impressionists or expressionists, the young Cullen was drawn to the Old Masters. Works by Goya and Caravaggio and the raw elements of human nature captured in their works excited and inspired him.

Cullen left home at 18, declaring his parents too “boring” to live with. He completed art school at the City Art Institute, graduating with a Diploma in Fine Art in 1987. Cullen continued to study as well as produce art from his studio in Annandale. He gained recognition in the art world after chaining a decomposing pig’s head to his ankle for two weeks for his performance art project during his student days. He was awarded his Masters in Fine Art from the University of NSW in 1999. **

Cullen moved to Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains in 2001 and In 2007, he was granted a prestigious Australia Council residency in Barcelona.

In his last years, Cullen struggled with addictions and was often admitted to hospital with related illnesses. His pancreas was removed and he became diabetic. He also received a suspended sentence after being arrested on a drink-driving and firearms charge. ***

Cullen remained close to his family throughout his life, his adored mother, Carmel, died in 2010 and his father, Kevin, continued to love and support Adam through his illnesses.

Cullen died at home in the Blue Mountains in July 2012.

Cullen exhibited widely from the early 1990s, with numerous solo and group exhibitions. His work was included in exhibitions by major galleries in Australia, such as Australian Perspecta, at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1993 and Preambles, Australian Perspecta at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999, Adam Cullen: blind side at the Experimental Art Foundation in Adelaide and Institute of Modern Art, Fortitude Valley in 1999, Bitter Sweet, at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2002 and Identity and Desire at the Art Gallery of South Australia in 2005. **

Cullen also exhibited overseas in Zurich, Paris and Brussels and he was chosen to represent Australia at the 25th Biennale de Sao Paolo in Brazil in 2002. **

In 2008, Cullen’s work was the subject of a major survey exhibition, Adam Cullen. Let’s Get Lost, curated by the Art Gallery of NSW and accompanied by a major catalogue published by the gallery. **

Cullen was awarded the Archibald Prize in 2000 for his portrait of actor David Wenham and was a finalist a further nine times. He was instrumental in changing perceptions about the conservative nature of the Archibald Prize. Cullen also won the Mosman Art Prize in 2005 and Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize in 2008 for Pegasus Flying over Sydney. **

Adam is the subject of the feature film Acute Misfortune (2019), co-written, directed and produced by Thomas M. Wright, based on journalist Erik Jensen's 2015 biography of the artist, Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen.

Painting what he saw as the inescapable materiality of being human - sex, death and the messy body, Adam sought to elicit strong emotional and physical responses from his viewers - to bypass the rational in search of an affective and visceral response. This tendency did not sit well with some critics, who saw Cullen as nothing more than an attention-seeking enfant terrible whose major project lay in shocking the middle classes. ***

Cullen relished this reputation, Hard living, offensive and crass to the bone, the man tried hard to alienate himself from the mainstream ever since childhood. Yet, ironically, it did not work; rather, the contemporary art scene embraced him. Critics lauded his talent and perceptive interpretations. Collectors continue to seek out major works and are proud to have confronting (yet colourful) works hanging in their homes. Cullen has even broken celebrity status with the general public. Brand ‘Cullen’ has been featured in every major broadsheet and the hotel that bears his name maintains a reputation as a place to stay and been seen in Melbourne.

Cullen used allegory to provide incisive social commentary. Handsome horses, circus elephants, even filthy pigs reflect various elements of humanity. Many of his works contain dark and abject subject matter: maimed and disfigured bodies, rapists and murderers, scatological and sexual themes. Yet, for Cullen, representing the unspeakable was a serious vocation. *** In one media interview he described happiness as “just a delusion that's created on TV” and the world as a place that was “not quite right”. He was curious about his own death and said dying would “be some kind of conceptual relief”. ****

Cullen was also known for making controversial statements, with a propensity to bend the truth, saying: “Endurance is more important than truth.” ** Certainly, his work has endured and his artworks are still highly collectible today.

Cullen’s works are represented in Collections across Australia, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the Art Gallery of Western Australia and many other state and regional galleries, corporate, university and significant private Collections throughout Australia. **

* Review: Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen, Kit Messham-Muir, The Conversation, 15 September 2014 ** Adam Cullen, Meet the Artist, Art Series Hotels *** Artist was drawn to darker side of human existence, Catherine Lumby, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 July 2012 **** Archibald winner and ‘grunge’ painter Adam Cullen dead at 47, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 2012.


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