In Bed with the Ghost of Adam Cullen
Formerly we used to canonise our heroes. The modern method is to vulgarise them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable.
Oscar Wilde The Critic as Artist Part 1
It was late and we’d been drinking. In bed. It had moved on from touching to talking. About him, we always spoke about him. It was really too late to start something meaningful. But we were both sick to death of meaning. He was curious. I was hot. He was the meat. I was the sandwich.
I was trying to convince Adam Cullen to paint my portrait. Like the portraits he’d done of Chopper, David Wenham or of the five convicted killers of Anita Cobby (including ringleader John Travers). He shrugged, non-committal.
‘Just one colourful big painting of me Pooh bear. One of the ones with the designer drippy bits, the fresh, clean drips that make it look like you just don’t care. It’ll only take you ten minutes!’
‘Just once paint a woman with her head attached and her clothes on,’ I jibbed in my little girl voice. ‘The women you do paint are all getting a bit Boxing Helena! I’m doing you a favour here you clown!’ I continued, more sternly. He smiled. I remember him describing Boxing Helena as: ‘unarmed and dangerous. It’s a brave little movie that explored the provocative issue of how some frustrated men channel their inability to love a woman into cruelty.’
I knew that movie could reach him. Ticked all the boxes. I was pleased. Amputee fetishism. He loved actress Sherilyn Fenn. Where has she disappeared to? It’s a tough gig being a beautiful and talented actress. Longevity. Where is the longevity? Meanwhile…
‘But Nato, hardly anyone buys straight portraits of women. Sure I’ll paint David Wenham straight. That’s an award winning move, but women? There’s no market for them and the market never gets it wrong. That’s what Erik Jensen says.’
‘Who’s Erik Jensen?’
‘That’d be me Natalie’ chuckled a fine, tousled-haired young man, emerging from a huge pile of Adam’s smelly clothes.
‘I’m observing Adam for a fake book deal. I take wonderful notes, copious abuse and some physical cruelty, in order to truly capture a stylised Adam. Think of me as a Dian Fossey figure. You know? The woman who observed big gorillas in their natural habitat in the ‘80s? Became strangely involved with them and famous because of them?’
‘Shut the f**k up Erik and prepare me some drugs or sex or hedonism and shit!’ said Adam.
Erik made a copious note, took a photo and quickly limped off to the bottley.
‘What’s wrong with his leg Adam?’
‘Camping accident. I was shooting native wildlife and I fired a load directly at his leg. He never saw me coming. Erik’s OK. He follows me round like a pig’s head chained to my ankle.’
‘How long will you have a pig’s head chained to your ankle, you sick f**k?’
‘Until lazy arts journos stop reporting my clichés.’
‘Adam. You’re Cray Cray. And bi-curious’
‘Erik says that I say that he’s the man for me in his book about me that he’ll publish after my death. He’s a good friend and a great moving target. He hardly even cried when I reportedly pushed him off my motorbike. I must have been pushing 70K too! God he needed a hug after that fall…’
‘Writing a sensationalised book about your friend, rather than trying to help him doesn’t fly with me Adam. People close to you (not Judges in court) should be advising a bit of counselling if there’s concern for your well being.’
A pause. I concentrate into the distance, thinking of my much loved time overseas. Ahhh. Overseas.
‘Adam. Paint me straight. You need this more than me. The Hero model you’re selling is obsolete. Well, everywhere except here it’s obsolete. You want an International audience one day don’t you? This sexist twaddle won’t fly overseas Adam. Sexism isn’t as populist there as it is here. Everyone who’s going to buy the product you’re peddling, already has an Adam Cullen. Adam needed Eve. You’ve got no Eve. You’re like the Beats. You’re refusing to look at the women in your life. We’re more than fence posts, rest stops, support beams. We can move.’
‘Time will look at these pictures with new eyes. If you don’t include at least a couple of non-sexualized, human female figures, I think it’s less important work. Maybe that’s why you’re in such a hurry to wear yourself into an early grave. To beat the downturn you know is coming. Did you know that Simone de Beauvoir prophesied in 1949 that:
Maybe the myth of woman will die out one day: the more women establish themselves as human beings, the more the magical quality of otherness is dying in them.
Adam couldn’t see women as human; he painted us as nurses, as nuns (and that’s a BAD HABIT), as whores and objects. He was unwell. I don’t know what excuse the gallery directors, biographers, journalists and curators have. The ones who helped him out; writing, representing, collecting, and showing. It was the boys who liked Loserville most. They worked hard for Adam, protecting his right to profit from the diatribe that was Adamland. They all profited from it. And it was disappointingly easy to sell. Adam did know his market.
The slam of a back door. Erik was back. He’d bought voddy and some Krystal champagne. Like the bad boys of hip-hop drink.
‘What are we celebrating Adam?’ I asked, skolling champagne from the bottle.
‘We’re celebrating that I’m one of Australia’s most celebrated artists!’
‘But what is Australia celebrating by elevating you to be one of Australia’s most celebrated artists Adam?’ the question pitched in a childish singsong voice.
‘Rednecks and Pig dogs’ he replied, laughing matter-of-factly. ‘Collector’s here are moneyed-up old school ties with Bogan tastes’ he spat out contemptuously. ‘I just knew they’d love it. All they want is to shock the friends they invite over to their joint with some pseudo-psychotic expressionistic Aussie male nonsense on a pastel hued background. Adding the pastel gets them all confused. Intrigued. Then Whammo! Chi-chink! The plastic’s out. They buy. And if you can get, say, 5 or 6 rich dudes to pay top dollar for your shizzle: it’s on. By that I mean that they’ll do everything they can to protect their original investment, which is my dumb paintings.’ He was getting his perv on now…
‘The Universities collect it and the publicly funded art galleries collect it. And they all show it. Its institutionally sanctioned sexist drivel on public display. In places that have Equity Policies!’ he pauses dramatically to let it sink in. ‘Public institutions have been seeing value in this stuff and spending taxpayers money on it’, he stressed, showing off now. ‘Sexism is definitely an effective marketing tool.’
It was so appalling I had to laugh. Laughing beats crying and I knew these were honest words. A true reflection of a country that, unfortunately, is home. To be close to an Archibald Prize winner is an expensive and poisoned challis so I swung my feet firmly to the bedroom floor.
‘Where are you off to Nato?’
‘I’m going to meet Chopper at the Curry Family Hotel. He’s a convicted murderer but he’s unrepressed. I’m outta here!’
‘Bye Nat’ chirped Erik from a vomit stain at the foot of the bed.
This is a sad story and not a funny story. Its sad for us all and once again, its most sad for women, because Adam’s misogyny is collected, supported, perpetuated, documented, written, sold. I would have carried his coffin. But women aren’t allowed to bear the weight of all that Australian maleness. Not when it’s dead that is.
10 minutes of Institutionally sanctioned propping-up of an outdated mode of Australian maleness
The Cullen, Art Series Hotel Group (you were never here)
The Cullen, high end marketing campaign clearly pitched at female hotel visitors (probably because women choose accommodation and make more bookings)
Erik Jensen’s spiel to ABCs Geraldine Doogue about the book he’s written about Adam
(2 minutes, the round up) ABC Adam Cullen passes away