Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen By Erik Jensen

    There was a lot to think about while reading this book, and it took me well out of my comfort zone. I like reading biographies of artists, but although his prize-winning portrait of David *swoon* Wenham was on my radar, Adam Cullen (1965-2012) wasn’t. When the publicity blurb told me that this Cullen cultivated a ‘bad boy’ persona, (drugs, grunge, outrageous behaviour) I suspected that I was not going to like him – or the book. As it turned out, I was right about the former – and wrong about the latter…

    I like books that make me think. And this book provokes the question, how tolerant are we as a society and as individuals, of people who don’t fit into everyday society? I am not now thinking of discrimination, but rather of disapproval, whether expressed or internalised. Erik Jensen writes the life of a most unlikeable man with some tenderness. He makes the reader see that within the self-destructive egoist, Cullen had some charm. And although Jensen is somewhat ambivalent about Cullen’s talent, implicit in the bio is also the question, are we willing, or obliged to be, more tolerant of someone of genius; and are we willing, or obliged to be, more tolerant of artists more ordinary that that?

    To read the rest of my review please visit Hardcover This short, powerful book paints a vivid portrait of Adam Cullen, a prominent and controversial Australian artist. But more than that it portrays a fascinating relationship between Cullen and the book's author Erik Jensen, who writes perceptively about his intense and not always likeable subject. Hardcover Not being much of an art connoisseur, I wasn’t very aware of who Adam Cullen was or what his work was like. A copy of this found its way to me and I read it based on the blurb making it sound a bit Gonzo and wild, what with mentions of author Erik Jensen being both shot and thrown off a motorcycle by Cullen. I don’t think that kind of imagery gives a fair impression of the book, however; it is more of a mix between character analysis and brutally honest eulogy than any kind of rollicking bio.

    Cullen is painted as a complex and deeply flawed character- a man with a good upbringing he wished was more painful, a manipulative and at times malevolent man who felt deeply and seemed to care deeply, too. The book is laid out in a thematic fashion moreso than chronological, with chapters titled Prologue, Death, Persona, Art, Mother, Drugs, Archibald, Father, Sex, Court, and End that reflect Cullen’s relationship with each of those things. The writing is spare and imbued with a surprising detachment considering the author’s sometimes uncomfortably close relationship with his subject. It’s quite confronting but also easy to read, and filled with pathos. Much like Cullen’s work, “Acute Misfortune” is really interesting and quite beautiful in a very ugly way.
    Hardcover White dude toxic masculinity art laid bare.

    You need a hot shower after you read this book. It doesn’t quite go deeply enough into the context of the art world Cullen inhabited (for my liking), and that accommodated/encouraged him. I’ve often thought the Sydney art world offered a lot of opportunities for investigative writing that just aren’t taken up. This is a good start. The most interesting aspect is the author’s personal and rather un-objective relationship with Cullen. It’s a bit too vignettey (it has a journalism feel), but its shortness is a mercy really.

    But I do feel a bit dirty consuming products that serve to further mythologise pretty shoddy artists. And it’s always dudes. I believe there’s a film of this coming; I wonder how it will judge Cullen? Will it moralise about him (I’m tempted to; he’s pretty unsavoury), or amp up his talent, or what?

    Deep sigh.

    Look, it’s not a forgettable story, this. I’ll give it that. But I’m so tired of these kinds of narratives about tragic bad boys. I suppose making consistently wonderful work, while starting a family or maintaining positive relationships and health is too boring. Hardcover I'd known who Adam Cullen was from the papers rather than his art, at least initially. He was the eminently quotable prick who had issues with his mum, and was a bit of a lair, given to creating sculptures out of random shit, and artwork that was distinguished from that of a truculent kid by dint of the violence bubbling underneath it.

    I'd seen his Archibald winners (and non-starters), but hearing him constantly referred to as an enfant terrible or similar made me a bit leery of learning more. And then he died, and at least some of the obits made me think there might be a bit more to the story.

    Fast forward a couple of years, and the movie based on this book, Acute Misfortune, shows up. I catch it because of Daniel Henshall's phenomenal presence, and decide I have to read the source. So here I am. And bugger me, but the book's just as good.

    Well, almost.

    (That said, if you've read the book but haven't seen the film, seek it out. It's brilliant, and brings to life the struggles within in a quietly grim way. I wrote about it here.)

    The book is a description of the author's interactions with the artist, which include stints in hospital, shootings, road accidents, endless phone calls and the offer to write a biography that never appears to have existed. Erik Jensen is as key to the story as its subject, and indeed appears to be interwoven with the emotions and struggles of Cullen, even when he's moved cities to get away from the guy.

    It's hard to consider this work a biography, because it doesn't stick to the regular biographical format. It doesn't present a steady stream of dates, nor does it truck with the sort of minutiae which most biographers sprinkle throughout, like wheatgerm on cereal. It's a portrait of an artist, but it's about motivation, about drive. The art is secondary, really. As Jensen notes in an email exchange here, he's not trying to write a worshipful portrait. It's as if he's trying to squeeze the marrow out of his subject: not to explain what he is, but to present more of an idea of why he is.

    The book I am writing contains, I hope, no myth. It is a story of abused talent and excess pathos. It is an account of a man whose lifetime of bravado exhausted him and alienated those around him, but in whose gentle nature there might be some explanation for this impulse. All journalism involves the Sisyphean task of trying to understand other people and in this I have been dealt a boulder called Adam.

    So it's a portrait of a guy who's very used to bending the truth to suit his own narrative, or perception of events. And it's a portrait of toxic masculinity as it destroys a bloke from the inside, inescapably corrosive.

    And as such, it's remarkable. Jensen was 19 when he started taking notes for the non-existent tome Cullen had charged him with writing, and though the youthfulness – naiveté – of that age isn't all that present in the book, a drive to explain, to know that's common to early adulthood is. There's a sense throughout that Cullen is somehow trying to tutor Jensen in his road warrior lifestyle: this is a guy who referred to himself as Mad Max, after all. But there's no way anyone – not even Cullen himself – can keep up with the intoxicant intake and relentless, blazing grimness of the artist's point of view.

    The art is written about, and it makes a lot more sense to me now, I suspect. It makes a lot of sense that Cullen's portrait of David Wenham is painted as Brett Sprague from The Boys rather than Diver Dan from SeaChange – the horror of the suburban, the defeat of the everyday is key to the artist's oeuvre. His work, as Cullen freely admits, is all surface: what you see is what there is. And yet, his skill is in making you want to see more.

    The truth is that by the end – hell, even before that – all there is to Cullen is addiction, anger and sickness. Even the art falls away, really. And so all there is is all you see: a sick, dying, then dead man, ravaged by the drives he couldn't explain too well, much less control. A guy who couldn't be his father – the flirtatious builder bloke – as hard as he'd tried. An artist. A fuck-up. A bad friend but a good quote.

    “It’s the only profession in the world where your employer wants you to die.” I think, in this strangely griefless church, it is perhaps the most honest description he gave of his career. I count up the art dealers in the room: there are four.

    Am I misreading it? Reading too much into it? Could be. But the book is great, and a quick read. I wish it were longer, but then I suppose so does Cullen.

    Acute Misfortune is an unflinching portrait of talent and addiction.

    In 2008, the artist Adam Cullen invited journalist Erik Jensen to stay in his spare room and write his biography. A publisher wanted it, Cullen said. He was sick and ready to talk. Everything would be on the record.

    What followed were four years of intense honesty and a relationship that became increasingly dangerous. At one point Cullen shot Jensen, to see how committed he was to the book. At another, he threw Jensen from a speeding motorbike.

    Eventually, Jensen realised the contract did not exist. Cullen had invented it to get to know the writer. The book became an investigation of Cullen’s psychology and the decline of his final years.

    In Acute Misfortune, we have a riveting account of the life and death of one of Australia’s most celebrated artists. The figure famous for his Archibald Prize-winning portrait of David Wenham is followed through drug deals and periods of deep self-reflection, onward into his trial for weapon possession and finally his death in 2012 at the age of 46.

    The story is by turns tender and horrifying: a spare tale of art, sex, drugs and childhood, told at close quarters and without judgment. Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen

    Free read Acute Misfortune: The Life and Death of Adam Cullen


    After reading all the press over the weekend, and a friend chatting to me about this new Adam Cullen book ... I was really curious. So I borrowed the Gallery's copy where I work, thanks Black Inc for sending us this, put aside everything else I was reading and devoured Acute Misfortune in two days. It's compelling reading because Cullen was such an interesting character, he could not have painted a more complex portrait himself. He's a Peter Pan, a boy that never wanted to grow up, he's reckless, irresponsible, rude and believes in his own myth. Years of drug addiction and alcoholism have crippled his body and screwed his mind. Add into the mix an Archibald Prize win and politicians, Gallery Directors and everyone else who excuse his behaviour because he is an 'artist', and he's a walking time bomb.

    But the really interesting story, for me, was Jensen's. An up and coming journalist who was invited to live with Adam on the pretense of writing his biography. Jensen writes in a non judgemental way, he presents the facts and lets the readers make up their own mind. And what I loved about this book, in particular, was that it's written by someone who really knew the subject and it's a recent history, it doesn't come across as if it's been peppered with assumption, hearsay or vague recollections - as so many biographies do.

    Jensen deserves a medal for surviving living with Cullen and for writing this sympathetic yet powerful book. Hardcover An incisive warts and all bio of a man with an incredible shrinking life. Jensen writes beautifully, but I found his depiction of Adam Cullen to be of a man so pitifully unlikable that it diminished my enjoyment of the book. Hardcover First-off, be aware of ignorance in my attempt to critique two men in art, a mischievous mythomane Cullen, and the author of this book, journalist and editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, and founding editor of Saturday Paper, Erik Jensen. Furthermore, I'm animated upon recommendation to the Council's library who ordered not one but two copies of this book certain to take away basic wealth from the author, in defense, adding abundance to the blue-collared space I'm housed in and the extended earthquake-d area. For the showmanship of book beauty, the front cover is stand-out and could add depth to the greyness of mid-century formica bookshelves were you, tight-arse, to buy a copy - sales pitch over.

    I became aware of Cullen the mangled artist and The Cullen, a Melburnian art hotel same name-same where I stayed for some time and shared a lift with the man himself, Adam in 2011. Clutching Coke, at least him with branded liquid, and me anxiety-ridden, employed by a right bastard who hoovered and supplied coke, the Universe manifested a brief, awkward in lift experience. Only weeks before and I'd taken a guided tour of Cullen's art in said hotel, the guide's showing far too professional to merge with the obvious of contemporary art. I'm seeing HOTEL-SEX TOTAL FUCKABLE ART DANGER.

    Later, staring off at one ugly image of a woman in my room and further learning from Jensen, a portrayal of his Mum - mate, I'm guessing his relationship with his Ma was a frayed and mixed-up one, indeed it was.

    He'd be pushed out further on the outskirts of feminism's skirt:

    'Women fare worse than men in Adam's paintings. They are victims of greater violence. If his men are impotent, his women are visions of cartoon sex - gin club floozies or wild squalls of genitalia. Their faces are watery, their features barely held together with make-up... In the painting 'Shut up, nobody wants to hear your stories', 'I've never painted any woman but my mother,' Adam says. 'That's her'.'

    And further by animal rights groups:

    'I was an adolescent, and like most white, middle-class teenagers from the northern beaches of Sydney, I hadn't experienced anything. It was in the far west of NSW on a sheep property. I was in the company of two older cousins and two dogs. We were in a truck pig-shooting in the blackness of early morning in God's Own Country. My cousins caught a large red kangaroo by lassoing it on the run. While two kelpie bitches held it down, they proceeded to cut its tail off with a chainsaw. At the time I thought it was pretty amusing, it certainly held my attention.'

    Putting ideals aside, I imagined an anxious Cullen guiding me through his work, hating the tour and me, appearing ordinary, him gawking at my tits and standing far too boring for his dangerous tastes. Truth is in those days with a self-destructive no-care toward me nor feminist books, I'da happily necked a bottle of voddie with the bastard. Turns out, Jensen did. The consequences, being shot by Cullen to see how committed he was to the book also thrown from a speeding motorbike. On second thoughts, perhaps not.

    Cullen dead at 46, he's not dangerous and since death, he's no longer a danger to himself. Decades of self-abuse, our vital organs start to erode, destruction and chaos from addiction/mental illness, the drink and drugs on the constant, escapism made violent art of his insides, details of which show here not spared for the sensitive among us:

    'To prove on this first meeting the conviction he felt about his death, Adam unbuttoned his shirt to show me a scar that twisted the length of his torso. His stomach looked like an overstuffed carpetbag, stitched poorly at the fastenings. He forced his thumbs into drain holes on either side of his abdomen - ports from the operation that a year earlier had removed his gallbladder and much of his pancreas, and which had healed as enormous pockmarks burred by infection. I asked him what had happened, to fill the silence more than anything. Acute misfortune, he said. I think the art world caused this. '

    Eventually, 'he drowned in his own blood'. You can't help ache a lot saved by the dotting of dark humour:

    'My Parents Number is 99821676... a painting no more than its title, spelled large across the picture plane... won the 1996 Gold Coast City Conrad Jupiters Art Prize. His father still receives phone calls to the number. 'I've had about ten since he did it,' Kevin says. 'The bugger'. '

    Cullen's Dad, Kevin Cullen, a bloke's bloke and Adam's hero managed his son well despite daily obsessive behaviour on Adam's part leading unconditional love to sometimes distraction. You're left with a solid impression Kevin supported his son 100% from the early childhood days of art discovery to one time, chaining a rotting pig's head to his ankle, demonstrably setting out to shock others. Jensen captures Cullen's vulnerability, his insecurities and darkness made worse by surges of grandiosity and dips into the lows of manic energy, a diagnosis of bi-polar mixed with the cocktail of heroin and booze, the driving edge in creation in a nocturnal practice of his art.

    To call Cullen misunderstood is a label I couldn't pin on him for the sake of unoriginality. I get his life and exploration as Jensen outlines Cullen's descriptor of others and complete avoidance, safe distance and observation of others shadows avoiding their own, a total cop-out and while he didn't fare out the other side never quite getting a handle on addiction, his illness nor saving himself, he explored, making him a damn case interesting over the liberal system of carbon-copies, unequally and immorally designed for the 1%, some of them hanging his works in congratulations of their stark individualism bogging holes in charity work, and those lesser among us, bound in its suffocating up-keep affording, if lucky, a print. I almost bought a print.

    His achievements other than lasting his age, peaked at the Archibald prize in 2000 for a portrait of David Wenham. His non-achievements, brushes with the law, his Court appearance for weapons possession.

    I read the book and revisited it days afterward, re-entering chapters, resisting the urge to rant nor fall into shock never finding Cullen offensive in the first place. Jensen writes intelligently. But this isn't about him, it's a well-written account of a confined relationship with an artistic rogue whose talent hit and miss. In the end, a lump in throat recalling sexy hotel, total fuckable art and an unusual man destroying himself, paint-brushing danger. Hardcover Like Adam Cullen, my first artistic revelation came in the form of Goya's dystopian nightmares on paper. Unlike Adam Cullen, I did not develop a crippling heroin addiction, collect weapons, win the Archibald Prize or shoot any of my friends. Jensen's portrait of a possibly great Australian artist dwelling on the fringe of society is gripping. At 188 pages it is all killer and no filler, with an emphasis on killer. The author is brave, reckless, and a brilliant writer. Highly recommended. Hardcover Can a failed project, a ghastly protagonist and a miserable life make for a great read?

    In the hands of Erik Jensen (with, I suspect, careful editorial support), they certainly can. There is so much to admire about this book: it's exquisitely written, cleverly structured, subtle but clear-eyed in negotiating its way around its subject. Jensen can turn a great sentence, and deliver an understated kicker with aplomb - qualities often used to quietly but decisively deflate Cullen's own claims and fabulations.

    But is Cullen worth all that effort? Here, he is a self-absorbed, self-mythologising, self-destructive character. His Archibald Prize win is well behind him, for a loose, garish, broad-brush rendering of actor David Wenham. And though Cullen clings to this prize for validation, its reception irks him; he lives easily enough with being a celebrated bad boy winning a conservative prize for a conventional genre, but denounces the misplaced rapture of the prize's middlebrow (mostly female) audience, who rhapsodise over actor-as-gentle-quirky-hearthrob (Seachange's Diver Dan) and misrecognise actor-as-psychotic-rapist-murdered (The Boys' Brett Sprague).

    Cullen coaxes and cajoles his biographer with promises of an unlikely book deal (the kind of promise that could have been easily confirmed - perhaps Jensen's failure to do so is meant to be understood as a sign of his own naivety). He then uneasily, unsteadily grooms the writer - for what? While Jensen is determined he won't become a hagiographer, he falls into a role as witness and confessor, an uneasy companion and a guarded collaborator.

    I liked the thematic chapters - a hard act to pull off, but done very effectively here. But they do mean some possibly key aspects of Cullen's life are elided or unexamined. Early exposure to art through a family venture to Spain, for one. A ten-year relationship (with Carrie Lumby), for another. The structures of power, influence and celebrity within the Sydney art scene are barely sketched, reduced to bogeys and straw men.

    Cullen is confident in his own intelligence and erudition, but mainly we just get railing against those who misunderstand him, and predictable references to artistic and literary precursors - Goya, Nolan and Whiteley are mainstays. Perhaps Cullen's smarts and charm, and the unavoidable disciplines of artmaking, had deserted him by this stage, but it would have been good to have a greater sense of them.

    A final observation: this is one reading that really suffered from a book's advance publicity. When an author withholds a critical discussion to late in the book, cleverly pairing it with early scene-setting misadventures, it's a pity to have already encountered all that, extracted as a promotional prologue.

    What abides is a study in an author's relationship with his subject, layered, provocative and compelling to read. Though I grew impatient with its narrow focus, I suspect much of it will continue to resonate. Hardcover