The most pungent moment in the film adaptation of Erik Jensen’s 2014 book Acute Misfortune (Black Inc.) is one in which in which its ostensible subject, artist Adam Cullen, is absent. Riven with worry, years into his assignment as Cullen’s biographer, the young Jensen seeks advice from his editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He’s out of his depth. He’s been like this from the start, played by the lanky Toby Wallace as the urban boy in oversized jackets, hypnotised by the rugged bloke before him, played by Daniel Henshall, skinning a beast of his own hunting. By now Jensen, an outsider to the art world, has realised how far gone Cullen is, and that the assignment has spun out of control.
‘I’m not going there to write about his art,’ he murmurs to his editor.
‘Mmm,’ his editor, a hardened journalist type, replies. ‘Who gives a shit about art?’
Written and directed by theatre-trained Thomas M. Wright, Acute Misfortune, like its source text, is based on material gathered during Adam Cullen’s dying years. Jensen spent almost half a decade following the rogue painter through spells in hospital, a court appearance for weapons possession, hunting trips, motorbike missions, drug deals, studio visits and family lunches, all the while gathering material for a non-existent book contract. Jensen was pulled into Cullen’s orbit, which was mainly populated by journalists rather than friends, and the relationship turned turbulent as Cullen careened toward his death in 2012 at the age of 46 after decades of addiction and dysfunction.
Journos loved Cullen’s wildness and his impression of wasted talent. And as a film, Acute Misfortune is held aloft by the transactional tensions between biographer and subject. These tensions are evident in the film’s visual language, which casts Cullen’s garish colour palette aside for something more muddy and grubby. Another tension vibrates: the extent to which the film is concerned with Australia’s relationship with art, rather than just one notorious artist. Indeed, the most paradoxical quality of Acute Misfortune is that it exposes the destructive masculinity upon which Cullen built his personal mythology, within and beyond the art world. A new mythology emerges – that of Jensen, founding editor of The Saturday Paper, and now editor-in-chief of Schwartz Media, for whom Cullen was a crucible for his own ascent within Australia’s literary landscape.
We’re suckers for tales of art and deception – from J.T. LeRoy to Dan Mallory and the Fyre Festival. Cullen was not a fraudster, but a scammer. His principal scam was to position himself as an outsider to the art world, as the inheritor of the bushranger myth, a misunderstood figure who showed audiences the bile-soaked truth of life’s terrors.
As a film, Acute Misfortune is held aloft by the transactional tensions between biographer and subject.
Australia’s art canon, and the cultural discourse beyond it, are already overrepresented with a certain type of death-obsessed, hyper-blokey painter. Brett Whiteley – the blueprint for all those mythical male art ghosts – really did create a dynamic new visual language for Australia’s urban, waterside ecologies. The 2017 documentary Have You Seen The Listers? asked us to sympathise with another male ‘outsider’ artist, once again with a fractious aesthetic, long-suffering family and persona of emotional dysfunction.
There are very few artists of mythical dimension in this country, who occupy a lasting place in the national imagination. Why does Australia give such precious cultural space to destructive, dire men like Adam Cullen to be artists, to the exclusion of infinitely more culturally innovative, interesting others?
Australian art criticism seldom features the kinds of calmly controlled, narrative scenes in which Jensen’s book rehearses Cullen’s key myth-building moments. Cullen’s first memory, if we are to believe the pathologically dishonest artist, was one of paint – a tipped tin of enamel. He failed his undergraduate art subjects. His first moment of infamy involved a performance in which he lugged around a pig’s head shackled to his ankle. He modelled his Masters thesis on Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter, and quoted the mass murderer Martin Bryant. He dreamed of writing a doctorate titled ‘Death in Australian Art.’ From there on, media reports ring the same dull chimes: Cullen was larger than life, attracted to darkness, and his art had an ability to shock.
Cullen was, by his own description, a white, middle-class man from the northern beaches of Sydney. To anyone who has tried to make and present art, to catch curators’ attention, to own themselves and their confidence in a way that’s needed to claim a place for yourself in art’s institutional structures, Cullen’s demographic markers render him an insider who was primed for success. That he had a rancid personality only heightened his mystique, or what we would now call his ‘personal brand’. Perhaps that is Cullen’s nimblest achievement – that he accidentally internalised the same capacity for neoliberal self-branding that today’s young generations have perfected.
Why does Australia give such precious cultural space to destructive, dire men, to the exclusion of infinitely more interesting others?
Cullen’s subjects – machismo, the bush, flesh, abject beauty – deepen my suspicion that he merely served the media, large art institutions and the art market what they already craved – namely, a Great Mythical Male Artist. Ben Quilty, once Cullen’s contemporary, operates along similar lines – burgers, cars, suburbs, soldiers – a cultural ascension blisteringly dissected by Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung recently. Cullen and Quilty’s true subject, it seems to me, is whiteness – their own whiteness, uninterrogated.
In his book, Jensen writes of the acidic truth behind Cullen’s Archibald win in 2000. Cullen’s subject was David Wenham, who animated the core antagonist of Rowan Woods’ The Boys, a film in which three brothers bond by menacing and eventually killing women in the white-bread Australian suburbs. In painting Wenham, Cullen believed he had summoned a grotesque vision of the banality of male malevolence. ‘I changed the Archie,’ sneers Cullen in the film. ‘I painted a fucking psychopath. A rapist.’ But audiences saw Diver Dan, their beloved crush from Sunday night on ABC. Little wonder – the painting is a disaster of mixed communication and failed irony, all sunny colours and slapdash expression.
The irony goes further. Rowan Woods’ film The Boys critiques the culture that birthed Wenham’s character. Cullen worships it. His anti-authoritarianism masked a deep, and artistic, conservatism. What could be more Australian than that?
In any case, winning the Archibald Prize isn’t quite the mantle it first appears to be. It is a game. The Archibald may well be the oldest and most well-known prize for portraiture, but those qualities are precisely what limit its artistic integrity. Cullen didn’t so much change the Archie as continue its tradition of representational, celebrity, populist portraiture. Upon his death, Associate Professor Joanna Mendelssohn wrote that, with his portrait of Wenham, Cullen ‘recognised that the Archibald is one big media circus for popular taste, and played to it.’ Congratulations?
Cullen’s anti-authoritarianism masked a deep, and artistic, conservatism. What could be more Australian than that?
Cullen’s attention-seeking worked – for a few years, at least. And yet, despite being one of the few young-ish artists granted a retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in his lifetime, Cullen hasn’t enduringly captivated the art world, not in the way he seduced the media. That is the core myth of Cullen – that he is indeed a major figure in the history of Australian art. A major personality – yes, maybe. But, seven years on from his death, his work hasn’t held up. His contribution to contemporary painting largely isn’t revered by emerging artists today, and he gained little recognition overseas. He made art for the Australian media’s idea of art, for their silhouette of a blokey, dysfunctional painter.
He wasn’t so much ‘rebelling against materials,’ as Jensen writes in his book, but aping an aggressive, rebellious anti-painting aesthetic that had been moulded decades earlier.
I find it very interesting when men make films about masculinity, and what they reveal when they do. The most monumental is Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright, also a literary adaptation, which reveals Australian masculinity to be a frightened, alcoholic nightmare. As Cullen, Daniel Henshall (the actor who crinkle-smiled the Snowtown killer into existence in 2011) nails some particularly aggressive traits of the Australian male: the malevolent cackle, the threatening clipped t on the end of ‘mate.’ With these phrasings, in the way Cullen’s nuggety, then weak, physique occupies the filmic frame, Acute Misfortune joins a trail of films with the same purpose of male investigation. Henshall has spoken publicly about how he was hesitant to take on the role, in case it deified the gun-toting vision of artistic masculinity. With Acute Misfortune’s, delicate, critical layering and unveiling of perspectives (Wright has said how he considered whether Jensen’s book was written as an act of revenge), he needn’t have feared.
Men who refer to themselves in the third person. Who model themselves on bushrangers and cowboys and valorise psychopaths and rapists. Who self-rationalise, self-mythologise. Who hoard prescriptions. Who exhibit rudeness so that it might be construed as complexity. Who can’t get their shit together and take it out on others. Who believe that in their misery they have discovered a more poignant and profound understanding of life than all those happy, loving idiots. These qualities are not interesting, they are not clever, they are not necessary to be a good artist. On the contrary, they are boring qualities that make for boring art.
Acute Misfortune is a film of beautiful fragments, of growing doubts, of hypnotic visual metaphors (a train, on its tracks of inevitability, taking us into the claustrophobic Blue Mountains). By enlarging the lens from conventional biopic, to interrogating the co-dependent relationship between journalist and artist, Thomas M. Wright and his collaborators have made an exquisite film about what could have been a banal subject, and the character of Cullen is gradually revealed as somehow more one-dimensional than he first seemed: bald, sideburned, sweat collecting on his pallid brow, boasting about taking a cattle-prod to an ex-girlfriend, paying cabbies $300 wait-and-return fares to collect heroin from Western Sydney, via McDonalds, three times a week. ‘This’ll be good for the book, ay,’ he says to Jensen as he readies himself to spear heroin in between his toes. It shows Cullen as the quintessential narcissist: someone who has no internally-generated sense of self or esteem, and looks to others to build it.
Australia has no faith in art, especially contemporary art. That dismal reality is the real story here. No election has been fought over cultural policy – in fact, the country hasn’t even had a cultural policy since 2013. Acute Misfortune opens with an image of asphyxiating suburban conformity – rows and rows of triangular roofs. Cinematographers Stefan Duscio and Germain McMicking reconstruct an image of Australian normality and make it haunted, empty, latent with malice. To Australia’s suburbs, decorated with Ikea framed prints, there’s no story, no spark, no magic inherent in art – only in the personas and drama around the art. This nation is one built on a denial of culture, and the import of new ones.
The cinematographers reconstruct an image of Australian normality and make it haunted, empty, latent with malice.
Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Angelica Mesiti, Joan Ross, Janet Laurence, Lynette Wallworth, Fiona Foley, Tracey Moffatt, Louise Hearman, Julie Rapp – Here are Australian women who produce fine art, for and about other people, imbued with wonder and generosity and consideration. What does it say about this country that their stories have not become one with the story of Australian art in the same way as the burly, flailing, self-destructive blokes? Kylie Banyard’s canvasses of utopian societies of women artists, currently at The National 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, do indeed think through what a form as ancient as painting may look like in the 21st century, in new and interesting ways. Mythologise that.
Only in this built, occupying landscape could Adam Cullen fool the media with such a vapid persona and flaccid work. And he knew it. ‘It’s all theft, mate,’ Cullen says to Jensen, of his own art. ‘Just like what you do.’ When will the rest of us start listening?
Acute Misfortune is now showing in select cinemas nationally.