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Erik Jensen's Adam Cullen; Art's Confrontation with the Law
Erik Jensen's biography of artist Adam Cullen, Acute Misfortune, as a literary work that mixes new journalism with biography, inadvertently critiques the power of art that uses revulsion to attack bourgeois sensibilities limiting that art's ability to create new political spaces. Jensen's depiction of the prickly character of Cullen is informed from his unorthodox embedding of his life with Cullen during periods of research for the creation of the book that saw Jensen being shot and pushed off a moving motorcycle by Cullen (amongst other hectic occurrences). Cullen's inflammatory art, seen through the literary depiction of his life by Jensen, in the penultimate chapter of the book, is placed in conflict with the towering and distant power of the legal system, and in that conflict it is Cullen's art which falls short and the law which remains unmoved. The biography thus speaks against the power of art to create new political spaces, and yet simultaneously acts as support for art which considers interpersonal human relations.
The book's front cover has high praise recommendations from award winning Australian authors Christopher Tsiolkas and Helen Garner, yet to date the work has received very little scholarly attention. This is a shame as the work as a biography has high literary merit. It has been positively reviewed in a number of places and all reviewers seem to share in praise for the talent of Jensen. (Edmond; Sayer; Williamson) Beyond being a good read, however, the book is worthy of scholarly treatment as, besides the literary new journalism style of the text, many decisions on how the research is presented and how the final work is structured are intelligent and literary choices. For example, Jensen pays careful attention to the non-linear ordering of chapters, to the position of the coloured plates of Cullen's work between chapters, and the inclusion, as a prologue, of an email exchange between Jensen and Cullen's long time "coach, mentor and blackboard" Dale Frank regarding Frank's doubts about Jensen's motives for writing the biography and the feared possibility that any biography could mythologise Cullen inappropriately. These examples of specific authoring decisions are illustrative of themes that go beyond presenting the mere facts of Cullen's life. My claim is that in this depiction of Cullen's life, Jensen presents critical picture of the relationship between art and the law that calls into question the revolutionary potential in art that claims to possess such potential. Furthermore, in exerting great effort to avoid a mythologising of Cullen's life and drug and alcohol abuse, Jensen has instead depicted an anti-hero who grounds art not as a heroic undertaking (the artist against the world) but instead as a chronicler of one's struggle against one's flawed self.
Jensen, in defending his project to Frank in the opening email prologue explains that he is "writing a character study in which art – in the end – is not the most important part." (11) This phrase needs careful unpacking. Cullen was an artist, without art Cullen's story is not very much; however, it is also important to note that Jensen's character study is not a celebration of Cullen as 'one of the greats' nor is it a privileging of his talent above other artists of his time (also, it is important to add, neither is the book is not a criticism of Cullen's talent). Jensen deliberately avoids making Cullen the hero of the piece through a careful somewhat phenomenological description of Cullen's life, as Jensen saw it. The contents of Cullen's world show him not as an art hero but a troubled individual. Thus the style of new journalism is well suited to effectively producing this presentation of Cullen.
Tom Wolfe, in describing the literary merits of new journalism describes the way that 'feature writers' would arrive very early at sites where the 'news' was to take place. This allowed them to take in seemingly insignificant background details to a scene which later helped to furnish the literary descriptions of the event they were to cover. (Wolfe 12) Jensen as well furnishes the book with well-chosen anecdotes from his four years spent embedded in the artist's life. This allows the biography to be written in the present tense. The author can describe what he sees and hears and smells, not just what he has researched.
A taxi is waiting outside, having driven Adam from Wentworth Falls to the housing estate on Sydney's western fringe. As soon as he is inside the car, he lights a cigarette. Adam only travels with drivers who will let him smoke. "It's about getting lost," he is saying as the smack kicks in. "Lost in jazz, lost in heroin, just being free …" (Jensen 87)
In terms of mere biographical detail not much is gained here – that Cullen had a certain taxi-driver preference is not a significant life detail. Also, we are already aware that Cullen had a drug problem. The quote from Cullen does help us tie his grunge lifestyle to his grunge art; however the literary description of his preference for taxis, coupled with the description of him lighting a cigarette does a great deal to develop the character of Cullen. The quote, said in a heroin daze, in an excessive taxi ride while smoking inside the car, show a moment shared between Jensen and Cullen that paints a vivid picture of the details of Cullen's life. Hence an underlying aspect of the book is Jensen's literary art. That Cullen's at is not the central focus remains a true claim, but we now notice, it is more ambiguous than that. The book is very much concerned with art.
That Jensen embeds himself in Cullen's life (or the other way around) provides a lot of the drive for the story. We come to know the complex character of Cullen through Jensen's meticulous observations gathered over four hectic years of living with Cullen and being involved in many of Cullen's exploits. Again this is a typical method of new journalism where the risk that an author puts themselves through to get a story becomes an aspect of the story. For example, Wolfe describes the aura of a story created when a journalist he knew leapt from a broken down boat which he was sharing with the subject of his story into a freezing cold river in order to swim to shore and meet the deadline, having to be pulled from the river close to death. (6) The risk to the author becomes integral to the telling of the story. Jensen is right there with Cullen during drug deals, firearm incidents, drug and alcohol fuelled activities, and his presence illuminates the life and art of Cullen by adding a phenomenological description of the details of what they lived through. For example, Jensen writes about an incident where Cullen, in a long taxi ride, has a long spiel about how he will change his life around, and how he is finished taking drugs. The monologue ends when the taxi pulls up at an ATM and Cullen asks to borrow money; "he doesn't want me to know he is using it to score." (89) The account brings us to awareness of the manipulative side to Cullen's personae as Jensen becomes aware of it. The monologue takes us in, or at least it took me in, and then the arrival at the ATM turns any expectations of a changed or redeemed Cullen on their head.
The description of Cullen's persona as manipulative is consistent and brought out in many anecdotes. There are numerous accounts of Cullen pulling the wool over journalist's eyes in having them present a picture of Cullen that Cullen has chosen himself. (36-37) From the first page we are told, through an email from Frank to Jensen, that Cullen and Frank had immediately hit it off when they first met as they both had green hair. (Jensen 3) Frank was later to learn that Cullen had died his hair for the meeting. Such manipulative behaviour, apparently feature of Cullen's life, makes biography difficult. Incorporating these accounts of Cullen's erratic behaviour provide thoughtful opportunities to consider the importance of an artist's character for understanding their art. Also the question arises if the character can be doubted does that impact on the solidity of interpretations of their oeuvre?
Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote an interesting essay on the art and persona of the artist Paul Cezanne that is an interesting comparison to Jensen's biography. The essay does not claim to be biography but it is interested in biographical details of Cezanne's life that shed light on what kind of character he was. For Merleau-Ponty, the failings in Cezanne's persona find root in the wondrousness of his art. (Merleau-Ponty 79) For Merleau-Ponty, "Cezanne's uncertainty and loneliness are not essentially explained by his nervous temperament but by the intention of his art." (Merleau-Ponty 79) Cezanne was a very difficult character and the anecdotes that support this reading are quite famous. From temper tantrums after a friend held his arm to stop him from falling over (Cezanne apparently yelled "he will not sink his claws into me") to waving friends to not approach him when he encountered them in public. (Merlea-Ponty 69-71) Merleau-Ponty uses these instances to discuss the prominence of perception and nature in Cezanne's paintings – this is expected as Merleau-Ponty is a philosopher interested in perception. Appealing to psychoanalysis, Merleau-Ponty claims that Cezanne's inflated self-doubt is what created the space for his work to progress. By continually doubting the effectiveness of his work Cezanne could project closer and closer to his stated aim of bringing perception back to nature. (Merleau-Ponty 75) Drawing out the conclusion to include the art of Leonardo da Vinci Merleau-Ponty posits that the traumas that take root in an artist's character, although not causing specific actions in their practice, find root in the totality of their expression. (84) He writes,
Thus it is true both that the life of an author can teach us nothing and that – if we know how to read it – we can find everything in it, since it opens onto the artwork. (84)
Merleau-Ponty thus celebrates the presence of the passionate and self-destructive traits in the artists who help him understand the world. Jensen's depictions of Cullen's self-destruction and personality flaws differ however, in that Jensen begins from the presence that Cullen's character, in some way adds a mundane element to his art rather than elevates it to the lofty heights of universally significant art. My suspicion is that Cullen is sceptical that art has such an appeal. This is not to say that the book is not a celebration of art, rather that it is a mistake to take the artist as possessing a message of universal significance. The encounters with Cullen's work described by Jensen are personal and allow Jensen to reflect on his own life, without speaking to the universal human condition.
Hence Jensen's character study, if not to mythologise Cullen, if not to celebrate his art as being better than other art and if not written for its own sake, must have a different motive. I find the key to unpacking the reason for the book in the penultimate chapter – the description of Cullen's court case for illegal possession of firearms and driving under the influence. This chapter immediately follows a selection of coloured plates of Cullen's art. The effect of this juxtaposition is to put Cullen's art, and life, into conflict with the force of the law. So when Jensen claims that art is not the most important part of his book we need to understand him not to mean that art is unimportant, but that art is another character in this biography. The dust jacket of the book shows a portrait of Cullen standing in front of a part of one of his paintings. The painting dominates the front cover and Cullen only appears on the back page. His art is what we encounter first the painter is revealed looking out an intense and charismatic stare, yet he is still relegated to the back.
The way that Cullen has organised the chapters deserves a mention as the book opens, after a prologue of the already mentioned email exchange, with Cullen's death. The first sentence is "Coffins weigh more than you'd expect." (Jensen 15) This short observation shows the author outliving the subject of his work, literally lifting him up and carrying him to his grave. The confronting thoughtfulness of the sentence immediately lifts the book above that of usual biography. Furthermore we are immediately thrown into considerations of what the death of an artist means. Jensen counts four art dealers at the funeral and remembers Cullen telling him that art is the only profession where your employer wants you to die. (19) Previously in the book, in the email exchange between Frank and Jensen, they discuss the potential of an artist's biography to place the artist on a pedestal, as if their death somehow completed their work. Jensen notices at the wake a wall at his father's house covered with school children's attempts at making art like Cullen's – a criticism of Cullen's art was that it was nothing more than children could do. (21) Returning to Cullen's studio/house in the Blue Mountains, Jensen describes it, not as the magician's laboratory but as a haphazard collection of objects showing Cullen's psyche. Rather than speaking to the universal human condition, the remnants of Cullen's studio speak of Cullen's personal problems. Merleau-Ponty's reading of Cezanne's persona misses this phenomenological attention to not only describing a personality trait but the contents of the world which the artist created in. The objects of the studio speak volumes to the persona and rather than contributing to creating a halo effect instead humanise the artist. The strange collection of objects from Spanish military helmets, to empty bottles and syringes show the at-hand objects which are a feature of Cullen's sculptures. Jensen describes the contents of matching a lost soul rather than those of a genius who saw what no one else could.
The art work of Cullen was deliberately inflammatory - he used his art to push the boundaries of what people could endure. (30) We learn that as a student, Cullen had chained a pig's head to his ankle until it began to fall apart, a project which created a divide between him from his fellow students. Jensen writes that Cullen's art was an attempt at creating a distance from the ordinary everyday person and a sense of revulsion in the viewer. Cullen appears in the biography as a curious sociopath "checking whether society was still paying attention." (31) Fitting in to the 1990's grunge art scene which rekindled a punk mentality by using revulsion to show generational disgust with 'normal' bourgeois normality, Cullen's oeuvre is full of images of twisted grotesque figures, inflammatory text statements and sculptures that highlight his life of abuse. The quirkiness of Cullen's brand of boundary pushing made him highly collectible. In a scholarly commentary on his art Keri Glastonbury relates a story of brining a painting of Cullen's to a wealthy inner-city mansion where the colours of the painting fit the interior design scheme of the mansion. (156) There is a sense that Cullen's rage at the normal was appropriated by the art world which saw it as a collectible object rather than as an attack on the mundane as its creator might have had it.
Jensen lambasts this appropriation through a description of an award winning sculpture, made in Jensen's presence. Cullen simply glued the contents of his coffee table, cigarette butts and insulin needles, to a jamón stand and painted it silver. (Jensen 35) Jensen's description is missing any celebration of the artists techne presenting the work as being lazy, without thought, and yet something that the art world ate up. There is no aura in the description of many of the works as they are described by Jensen – the cigarette butts do not stand for anything, Cullen just glued them to a table and the result won an award. The art scene, in Acute Misfortune, is a force which devours the self-destructive tendencies in Cullen – at one point in their friendship Cullen even showed his body scarred from many operations to treat conditions caused by alcoholism and drug abuse, that the art scene caused those scars. (Jensen 25) The implication is that without the hard grunge lifestyle, the art loses some of its collectible magic. Cullen's self-destruction might instead have been a necessary condition of his success.
Cullen's rebellion from and immersion in the world of art is a curious contradiction. Jensen laments the enfant terrible label the art world bestowed on Cullen early in his career as it gave Cullen an image to live up to. Strangely then, Cullen appears as both the rebellious provocateur and the accepted mainstream – his work causes revulsion and is all the more consumed for that reason. What is left is an artist with a big artistic persona and little agency. Frank, in the opening email exchange with Jensen describes Cullen's large ego and displays of bravado as a facade. (Jensen 9)
It was always someone else in control, in command pulling levers. Either Adam in the "third person" so to speak, or another person entirely. (Jensen 9)
Cullen is thus presented as a puppet with many masters. The perceived jealousy of his mother at his success is a source of anger which compels some of the rage in his works. (Jensen 65-81) The persona that he feels he needs to perform to remain a prominent artist coerces behaviours that hide a more timid core. The art world demands erratic and eccentric behaviour and fosters in Cullen a real revulsion at the ordinary mundane world. This revulsion fuels the creation of his art, simultaneously as Cullen demands recognition from the very world he reviles.
Descriptions of Cullen's art are left to Jensen's deadpan descriptions for the majority of the book. The details of Adam's life as it was shown to Jensen emerge in thematically organised chapters with titles such as 'Mother', 'Persona' and 'Drugs.' The effect of this ordering, after the chapter on his death, is to colour our reading of Cullen's life understanding Cullen's mortality. His work does not seem to reach beyond his grave as Cullen positions the reader to understand Cullen's work as an extension of his persona, and his persona as his struggle to deal with recurrent themes in his life. In a moving anecdote Jensen recalls a tear filled Cullen standing in his garden, in his underwear crying and yelling about the end of a retrospective exhibition of Cullen's work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (Jensen 45) Cullen rails against the finitude of the show. He wanted it to continue in perpetuity. By confronting us with Cullen's struggle with his mortality and explaining the themes which inform the art work Jensen insures that the aura of the art work must speak for itself, it doesn't become great because the art world decides it has.
This is the service to Cullen's art that Jensen achieves – the addition of the human all too human details of Cullen's life bring us to awareness of the frailty of Cullen, not the insight in his art. This is contrary to the celebration of human frailty that Merleau-Ponty writes about in Cezanne. Cullen's art is all the more appreciative as a result, instead of seeing the enfant terrible selling art to adorn mansion colour schemes, we are able to perhaps recognise our own failings. The human condition that Jensen appreciates in some of Cullen's work is thus highly important as Cullen can show us a frail suffering psyche. This is apart from the works Jensen rejects as pieces created for the art world, such as the sculpture described above.
Immediately prior to the penultimate chapter Jensen shows 13 colour plates of various works of Cullen. These plates take the form of a chapter inserted between a discussion of Cullen's sexuality and his court trial. The ordering of the book in this way allows the reader the opportunity to confront Cullen's art works exploring the external forces at play on Cullen which find root in his work. The paintings shown are mostly of grotesque bodies painted in garish colours in revulsive actions such as vomiting, or Cullen's take on Saturn devouring his children. One obvious inflammatory painting is a large text piece with the words 'My parents telephone number is 99821676'. The selection is clearly there to demonstrate the enfant terrible image Cullen cultivated.
If we consider the selection of pictures to constitute the penultimate chapter to the penultimate chapter the second last chapter takes on a greater significance. We have just been presented Cullen's art and life story; however Jensen chooses to end the book with a description of the highly public court where Cullen was charged with possession of illegal firearms after he was pulled over with a car full of guns and heavily under the influence of alcohol. The guns, apparently, were to be used in the creation of a new art piece where Cullen would shoot paint cans positioned in front of a canvas until enough paint covered it. (Jensen 165) Such border crossings into the unlawful are entirely within Cullen's usual activities. Jensen claims that a common feature of Cullen's interpersonal relations is a pushing of boundaries to see how far he could upset a person. For instance in an alcohol fuelled camping trip Cullen shot Jensen with birdshot.
It is an accident, but also a kind of test. Adam is never satisfied until he knows where the boundaries are, until he knows how far he can push a person. (Jensen 30)
Later, Cullen pushes Jensen off a motorcycle before coming up to him and asking "how was that?" These border crossings are described by Jensen as Nietzschean informed attempts at helping people to live more dangerously. (Jensen 30) Jensen almost jokes about the myriad of interpretations which were thrown at his work by various critics, from feminist to presenter of the beauty of the decayed. (Jensen 59) Jensen reports that Cullen, upon winning the Archibald prize for his portrait of actor David Wenham, pretended to receive a barrage of hate mail n order to uphold his position as a transgressor of artistic sensibility. (Jensen 110)
One of the benefits/problems of living in a liberal society that isn't recognised by Cullen is that one is able to express revulsion without fear of reprisal. In the art world one can be inflammatory and the worst punishment one can expect is to not be bought. The court incident however highlights the naivety in Cullen in imagining that his art is pushing some more established boundaries that exists outside of art – as if the art work opens up a new political space in which people can migrate to. Jensen describes Cullen in court, miming a gun with his fingers behind his back as the judge speaks and simultaneously being genuinely frightened at the possibility of time in prison. The confrontation between Cullen and the court is the most poignant moment in the book. The freedom to be repulsive is in a matter of speaking, considered by the court and tolerated the way one allows a child to continue to colour outside of the lines. Cullen talks to Jensen of the experience:
Adam is hollowed out by his final court appearance. It marks a turn in his mood that never corrects. "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…" (Jensen 177)
Cullen, as I read it, is confronted with the full force of the system which sustains the ordinary and everyday, the law. He had viewed his life's project as a continued removal of himself from that system, believing himself to be absolutely free. The realisation that the court had no consideration of his art's subject matter, despite character references tended to the judge by prominent political figures who linked his erratic behaviour with his art, was a blow to Cullen. The procedure of the trial left Cullen 'diagnosed' with a condition which explained his erratic behaviour – bipolar depression. (Jensen 172) Jensen writes that the court forced him to own up to details in his life which he didn't usually think of – his life. Diagnosed and nd reflective, Cullen was left to doubt the efficacy of his art's project. To read further into the courtroom appearance, it is as if the art world created a space within itself in which Cullen could 'misbehave' however that space was not attached to the space of real living.
If Cullen's self-announced crusade against boring life is captured by medical diagnosis and a permission of sorts from the legal system, then that doesn't say much for inflammatory art's ability to shake common accepted meanings. The art world is a pace where consumers delight in being disturbed; however the insights, if any, from that disturbance remain in the carefully curated space where the art hangs.
This is not to say that Cullen's work is left without pathos – instead the pathos he and collectors described it as possessing were mistaken. The clue lies in the final plate selected by Jensen – a portrait of Jensen. The painting is actually quite tender, and in that tenderness resembles the David Wenham portrait. Cullen was upset with the actual reception of the Wenham portrait as fans of Wenham's television persona Diver Dan, found a dreamy, loveable description of their heart-throb. Cullen had painted Wenham as his character from The Boys, a harsh, violent film where Wenham played a viscous sociopath. (Jensen 113) Despite this gap there is something to the misinterpretation which Jensen brings out, whether consciously or unwittingly. That is that in some of Cullen's work there is a tenderness the artist himself never announced and might not have known. Jensen lampoons, in his deadpan way, a wall plaque whose text seems to attempt to give Cullen's work more explanation than it might have deserved. "The pathos of his subject matter… is to be found in failed endeavours, misunderstandings and missed connections." (Jensen 59) The humanity that is revealed in Cullen's missed connections is startlingly pure. That Jensen doesn't totally buy the plaques message is clear, but his book supports its claim. Cullen, despite being a classic Raging Bull-esque antihero, formed many meaningful friendships in his time, many that he lost through his constant need to push boundaries. His funeral has attendees sharing tissues – that is people cared for him (Jensen 15). His need to be adored is our need for recognition. Jensen's book ultimately shows that the flaws of Cullen don't make his art more universal in scope, nor does it lift his art above that of other artists, instead the flaws in Cullen's life show us our own flaws. Unlike Merleau-Ponty's Cezanne, Cullen's persona doesn't allow him to make great art, instead his art reflects his flaws which are also ours. In the end, depite the art dealers at the funeral and the sense of being pulled like a puppet by the art industry, what outlives Cullen's are his friendships - as strange and strained as they were. In that sense the plaque is actually right, it just should not be paced next to any individual piece by Cullen.
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Jensen, Erik. Acute Misfortune. Melbourne: Black Inc, 2014. Print.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "Cezanne's Doubt" The Merleau-Ponty Reader. Ed. Ted Toadvine, Leonard Lawlor. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2007.69-84. Print
Sayer, Mandy. Erik Jensen captures the outrageous Adam Cullen in Acute Misfortune. Sydney Morning Herald. Oct 10 2014. Web. 12 Dec 2014.
Williamson, Geordie. 'Acute Misfortune' by Erik Jensen. The Monthly. Oct 2014. Web. 12 Dec 2014.
Wolfe, Tom. The New Journalism. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Print.