Review: Martin Edmondon Erik Jensen

Declivities & eminences: Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen

The first time I saw the cover of this book, my eye read a pun into the title: ‘Acute Misfortune’ could also scan as ‘A Cute Misfortune’. Such inadvertence can become the literary equivalent of an ear worm; once established, it may be impossible to banish. And this one does have a certain resonance, undercutting the sombre tone of the original with a black joke. The phrase ‘acute misfortune’ is Adam Cullen’s own summation of his fate and it comes with a gloss: ‘I think the art world caused this’, he tells his friend and biographer, Erik Jensen, as he shows him the scars on his abdomen and the drain holes in his sides – ports from an operation to remove his gall bladder and most of his pancreas. Quite how an amorphous entity like the art world could inflict these wounds is unclear. It would be more precise to say that Cullen’s sufferings were a result of his interactions with the art world, and that responsibilities therefore existed on both, or all, sides. Curiously, while this book is a consummate portrait of the artist, it does not have a great deal to say about the art world per se, which remains in the background: inchoate, vaguely threatening, yet ultimately beneficent, in a financial sense at least. And beneficent, too, in the fame, or notoriety, it confers.

Erik Jensen was a young reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald when he interviewed Adam Cullen in 2008. Artist and writer hit it off and Cullen subsequently invited Jensen — ‘nineteen and impulsive’ — to stay in the spare room at his home and studio overlooking the Grose Valley near Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, and write a book about him. He said he had a publishing contract with Thames and Hudson for the book, but this turned out not be the case. It was either a fantasy or a deliberate fabrication, take your pick. Nevertheless, Jensen did stay with Cullen for a period and, more to the point, established a four-year-long working relationship with him that was partly professional — after all, he did write a book about him — and partly personal. They became drinking buddies, among other things, and a couple of alarming escapades are recounted early in the book. At Hill End one night, Cullen fired at Jensen with a shotgun, perhaps by accident, leaving pellets in his leg. Another time, he deliberately pushed Jensen off the back of his motorcycle while they were travelling at speed. ‘How was that?’ he asked with a smile as he helped him up from the road.

These, Jensen tells us, were tests; which he passed. While unconventional and unusually severe, they emphasise an aspect of this book that is quite traditional. This was not a writer-artist partnership, focusing upon the work, like that which existed between Stephen Lackner and Max Beckmann, for example; instead, it was a partnership between biographer and biographical subject. It is Boswell and Johnson, or perhaps Johnson and poète maudit Richard Savage. Jensen might even be seen as a Horatio figure, absenting himself from felicity awhile to tell the story of the afflicted life and untimely death of his Hamlet-esque friend. He had been selected, you might say, as Cullen’s obituarist.

A crucial point here is the knowingness, or otherwise, of both biographer and subject. There is complicity between them. Since nobody tells all, there is always, in works such as this, a question about the degree of disclosure: how much did Adam Cullen reveal? How far did he go? What did he, while offering to say everything, actually conceal? On the other hand, how circumspect, or otherwise, has Jensen been? Joan Didion famously said a writer is always selling someone out. Is this a sell-out, for good copy, of the artist? Or, alternatively, is the author holding something back? There are many startling revelations in Acute Misfortune. Were there more that we are not privy to?

It is to Jensen’s credit, I think, that questions of disclosure are introduced at the very beginning and allowed to reverberate throughout. The book begins with a prologue that consists of an email exchange between Jensen and artist Dale Frank early in 2013 – that is, after Cullen’s death in 2012 – in which they discuss the propriety, or otherwise, of Jensen’s writing about Cullen. It is illuminating on several levels. Ethical questions are discussed, along with Cullen’s self-mythologising and the difficulty, with such a person, of getting to the truth – whatever the truth might be. The intention of the author’s quest is also raised by Frank, and defended by Jensen. At one point, Frank writes: ‘I don’t want to disclose everything that he and I discussed in confidence, as some things should NOT be disclosed.’

What can and can’t be disclosed is the question that underpins this book. Given the nature of the question, it is one that must go unanswered. But that does not mean we can’t see, at different points in the text, answers shimmer into view before fading away again. The book attempts to position itself as a possible solution to the enigma that was Adam Cullen. As such, it is brave, expressive, funny, pungent, revelatory, and at times very sad.

Acute Misfortune is not, however, a conventional biography; it is a portrait of the artist. In fealty to this aim, the structure of the book is intuitive rather than chronological. It consists of a prologue followed by ten chapters with one word headings: ‘Death’, ‘Persona’, ‘Art’, ‘Mother’, ‘Drugs’, and so forth. The basis of these ten chapters seems to have been a series of taped interviews with the artist recorded at various times over that four year period, as well as conversations, which may or may not have been committed to tape, with members of the Cullen family and other interested persons. Adam Cullen was one of those children who never move very far from home. He idolised his father, with whom he was in constant contact, usually by phone, for all of his adult life. His relationship with his mother, who was of Irish stock and had a theatrical background, was more conflicted and one of the stand out set pieces in this book is its account of his attendance at her funeral. There was a half-brother, seven years older, his mother’s child by a German sailor and steward, with whom Cullen did not get on. The family home was on Sydney’s northern beaches, and while it was certainly a stable upbringing, nevertheless there was some lasting trauma there.

Cullen drew from a young age. He was six when, on a family holiday, he stood in front of the Goyas at the Prado in Madrid. At ten, his drawings so disturbed his teacher that the school sought to enlist psychiatric aid. His parents supported their son in the face of this insinuation, and continued to support him all his life. His consistently provocative behaviour — such as chaining a pig’s head to his ankle and dragging it around art school — never seems to have alienated them. Jensen is too sophisticated and generous a writer to draw obvious conclusions from Cullen’s family background, but the indulgence given the artist by his parents might have had something to do with his attempts in later life to find the point at which parental indulgence, or its analogue, the indulgence of the art world, might be withdrawn. He was incorrigible in his efforts to find where these boundaries might lie and some of his strategies were outrageous, to say the least: touring, for instance, in the early 2000s, in a two man show with convicted killer Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. The statement that ‘the art world caused this’ is given a slightly different inflection here: no matter how far he went, there were those, like his parents, like Edmund Capon at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who would not abandon  him.

One of the admirable things about this book is the way Jensen declines to discuss, except in passing, what kind of artist Cullen was. Rather, like any good reporter, he is concerned with laying out the facts, repeating the words from actual conversations, describing occasions, transcribing documents. Interpretation is left to the reader. He never attempts to describe the artist in his studio and he never attempts to give an overview of the oeuvre: temptations most writers about artists fail to resist. We learn that, during the period that Jensen knew him, Cullen rarely, or never, entered the studio without first drinking a bottle of vodka (his house smelled always of the cranberry juice he used as a mix). We also learn that he made his work very quickly: but, for anyone who has looked at it, this is hardly a revelation. This is a kind of respect from writer to artist: he leaves the space in which Cullen made his work inviolable and he also leaves the work itself alone. There are just a few considered remarks: that Cullen’s subjects are innocence and suburbia; that his portraiture shows sad and broken men, damaged men, men who fail; that all his portraits of women are pictures of his mother (though this last observation stems from a remark Cullen himself made).

Another omission: the art professional is not really represented here either. I mean the one who did the business. The man who bought materials: paint and canvas and the other paraphernalia of the artist’s vocation. The one who framed the canvases, where they are framed. The one who prepared the work to an acceptable standard so that it could be shown in galleries and bought by members of the public or by art institutions. The one who liaised with gallery owners and curators and collectors in such a way that the always fraught transition from studio to public or other private spaces might be made.

Jensen does not really investigate art historical matters either. There are several places where he records Cullen’s post-punk contempt for most other artists and most other art, and he also notes Cullen’s unalloyed admiration, among Australian artists, for Sidney Nolan. But he does not mention that quite a few of Cullen’s late works, both paintings and drawings, reference Nolan directly and especially Nolan’s Ned Kelly series, which began in the 1940s and continued, on and off, for most of the rest of his life. These omissions are, I think, deliberate, strategic. They allow Jensen to avoid distraction as he paints his portrait of Cullen, in the flesh, raw, direct: very like the literary equivalent of a Cullen painting.

Nevertheless, there is one art world ghost that might have been raised: that of Francis Bacon, who has cast a long and largely inimical shadow over painters who have dared to be influenced by him. Bacon famously said that art was

a game, by which man distracts himself . . . it’s going to become much more difficult for artists, because you really must deepen the game to become any good at all.

Jensen does not mention Bacon as an influence upon Cullen’s life or work. Nor, on the evidence of this book, did Cullen acknowledge him. But he is there nevertheless, both in the style of portraiture Cullen used and in his subject matter. There is nothing in Cullen’s work that takes us beyond Bacon’s achievement — what he was able to do with paint as a substance — and nor do Cullen’s antics away from the studio illuminate the ‘game’ of art in any significant fashion. At his best, Cullen was, in fact, a portraitist in the traditional sense of the word. He possessed in abundance the kind of empathy that portraiture demands and his strongest works, what will survive of him, are the portraits — including portraits of animals, especially dogs. His portrait of David Wenham, for example, won him the Archibald Prize in 2000, although most people who admired the picture failed to realise it was Wenham in character as the psychopathic John Raymond Travers, the mastermind of the killing of Anita Cobby, from the film The Boys (1998), not Diver Dan of Sea Change fame. There is an exceptionally good portrait of the writer, Erik Jensen, included among the ten colour plates towards the back of the book.

Dale Frank warned Jensen at the outset that Cullen’s

façade of bravado and uncompromising Ego hid the reality, just in the same way his sad, responsive façade hid the reality. Both were structurally unsound. It was always someone else in control, in command, pulling the levers. Either Adam in the ‘third person’ so to speak, or another person entirely.

The question that haunts this book is: Who was that other person? He was the player in the Baconian sense, the one who was trying to deepen the game. He was also, I suggest, the one who took care of all the day-to-day tasks a professional artist must accomplish to continue in his or her profession. Despite the drinking and drug-taking, the hijinks with guns and cars and motorbikes, the frequent hospitalisations, Cullen remained a professional artist until the end. That ‘third person’ might also be characterised as the empathetic man who tried simultaneously to blunt and exacerbate his perceptions of other people and of the world in which we are living. This is a tired trope, of course: the ultra-sensitive artist who must self-medicate to survive and draw breath in this harsh world. But that does not mean such people do not exist.

As he traverses the ups and downs, the declivities and eminences, the lies and truths of Cullen’s hectic rush towards death, Jensen is a model of circumspection about himself. There is very little of the kind of authorial introspection that, in other hands, might have characterised a book such as this. We do not have to listen to the writer’s thoughts, late at night, when he wonders what he is doing and why he is doing it. As I read, I became alarmed by this degree of reticence, since it seemed likely to leave some interesting questions unasked and therefore unanswered. In part, I think this aspect of the book relates back to that early self-description, ‘nineteen and impulsive’. In part, it is the reluctance of the reporter to impose himself upon the material he is gathering. But there is another aspect, which does not really become clear until the eighth chapter, the one called ‘Sex’. I am not going to give it away here — read the book — but, while contentious, it is revelatory enough to change the entire tenor of the narrative to that point and also gives, insofar as such a thing can be given, the best clue to Adam Cullen’s highly conflicted nature.

In what is an artfully constructed book, the ‘Sex’ chapter comes just before the insert with the plates; they are followed by a chapter titled ‘Court’, which concerns the legal case which, it seems, delivered the coup de grâce. Afterwards Cullen was ‘hollowed out’, says Jensen: ‘It marks a turn in his mood that never corrects.’ Then he quotes Cullen:

I’m so used to absolute freedom. I can shit anywhere, I can piss anywhere. I can take drugs. I can kill things. But in there I was nothing . . . for the first time in my life I felt like Ned Kelly.

He has, you might say, come up against a limit he cannot go past. He has reached a border, beyond which is nothing. And in doing so, he has lost his agency as an artist and a man. It was, he says, the strip search by two woman cops at Goulburn that unmanned him:

I think that’s why I’m so alone. I have been persecuted. I was expecting jail. After that fucking search. I don’t think I have cried that much since I was a teenager. Adam Cullen doesn’t cry. But I met my match: I fought the law and they fucking won.

This portrait of a man undergoing a long, protracted and extremely painful suicide conveys an overriding impression of his essential loneliness. There were girlfriends in earlier times, but they have gone by the time Jensen comes upon the scene. Towards the end of his life, the two kinds of people Cullen saw most of were drug dealers and journalists, with taxi drivers (who used to compete for the plum job of driving him home to the mountains at night after he had scored) a distant third. If, as Jensen suggests, Cullen was in his work a sort of shaman of suburbia, a lightning rod for its deficits and its hidden pain, this only serves to sharpen his loneliness. For shamanism was and is a communal profession, and Cullen was a deeply isolated man. His substance abuse, so called, can be seen through the same lens: a once communal act now indulged in agonised solitude.

The relationship between his isolation and his art can only be guessed at. But it remains the case that the best art — and Cullen is sometimes very good indeed — unfolds in terms of some necessity that can seem like fate. And so, perhaps, the things he put himself through – absurd, dangerous, pathetic, heroic and strange – were a kind of sine qua non of the art he made. It is Jensen’s ability to describe these circumstances, to evoke this man, that shapes his book as a necessary not a contingent work, in the same sense that some of Cullen’s art still looks necessary. You might say that Cullen showed a high degree of perspicuity when he selected Jensen as his obituarist; it is certain that Jensen has honoured both the task and the man in a wonderfully eloquent manner.