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Catalogue Essay: Adam Cullen: Grunge and Rage – Associate Professor Kit Messham-Muir School of Design and Art, Curtin University, Perth

Adam Cullen Artist
When the historical record eventually settles on the Australian art of the early twentieth century, Adam Cullen will doubtlessly figure as the bad-boy artist who was the unsuspecting darling of the Sydney art scene.  And, doubtlessly, he will be remembered. 

His works are found throughout Australia’s most important public and private collections.  Four years after his death, Cullen’s art seems now to arrive coherent and identifiable, as if a pre-figured oeuvre that orbits his best-known work, Portrait of David Wenham, with which Cullen won the Archibald Prize in 2000.  And the Cullen works that most easily come to mind are those with a similar Australian vernacular as David ‘Diver Dan’ Wenham – the dripping hogs, terrified horses, gun-totin’ roos and snarling dogs.  Much has been said of the rapid self-destruction that followed his Archibald win, but to better grasp the art of Cullen, and his place within Australian art history, it is useful to understand his journey before 2000.  

I met Cullen back in the early 1990s, when he created mostly sculptural work, such as The Otherness When It Comes, 1993, a dead cat wrapped in masking tape, foam packaging and toothpaste.  Adam and I spent hours in his drafty studio at the back of a unit block in Annandale, talking about art, and Adam revelling in recounting the time he dragged a rancid pig’s head around on a chain, for a week.  But I would be lying if I said we were friends.  Adam and I were on opposing sides of a feud. 

At that time, in 1993, battle lines in the Australian art world were being drawn around one very contentious word: ‘grunge’.  Early in the year, Cullen was curated into two small group exhibitions that formed a defining moment in Australian art – Shirthead[1] and Adams[2], which also included some of the same artists as Rad Scunge,[3] Monster Field[4] and Scrounge Time,[5] such as Hany Armanious, Mikala Dwyer and Justene Williams.  These artists were creating radically different work using broken-down low-grade suburban material “that might be usually discarded as garbage, objects like broken furniture, plastic bags, old 'blu-tak', old cosmetics, old clothes and old records.”[6] 

In response to this new emerging rough-hewn aesthetic, Jeff Gibson, artist, curator and Associate Editor at Art & Text, published an article in the magazine titled ‘Avant Grunge’.[7]  The article focused on Cullen’s work, alongside that of Hany Armanious and Mikala Dwyer, saying “Part recession fashion, part obsessive recycling compulsion, grunge is also the (ideo)logical antidote to the crispy clean cutesiness of late-eighties yuppiedom.”[8]  Immediately, the term ‘grunge’ set a firestorm.  Cullen, Dwyer, Armanious and others Gibson named in the article resented the label.[9]  Dwyer complained that ‘grunge’ is “a really unfortunate term”, “because it trivialises the work and bunches us together in a way that discounted the difference in our work”.[10]  Gibson had curated High Pop at Roslyn Oxley9 in April that year, which some took as a rival doctrine to Shirthead and Adams; and saw his grunge article as a dismissal of these artists by placing them in context of the emergence of grunge in mainstream fashion.[11] 

Judy Annear summed up the conflict in her 1993 year-in-review for Art & Australia: “The outbreak of grunge and a curious collision with pop through exhibitions such as ‘Monster Field’, ‘High Pop’, ‘Shirthead’ and ‘Adams’ spawned endless discussions in art magazines and Sydney cafés.  For a month or two the debates were… ferocious”.[12]  Eve Sullivan, reviewing Shirthead in the July Art Monthly, stated that the exhibition, “has attracted excessive attention due to the not entirely appropriate rhetorics of ‘grunge’ and ‘scunge’ that have been attached to it”.[13]  Sullivan had written a positive review of Cullen’s March solo show in Sydney (which included his dead cat) in the very same Art & Text issue as Gibson’s grunge article,[14] and would go on to write Dwyer’s entry for the 1993 Perspecta catalogue.[15]  In her review, Sullivan concluded that Gibson’s High Pop was “perhaps more satisfying on paper than as an exhibition”, while favourably comparing Monster Field as functioning, “almost as an antidote to the rigid theorisation of ‘High’/Post Pop”.[16]  And, somewhat provokingly, Graham Forsyth’s review of Monster Field in Art & Text’s September issue retorted with the capitalised term “Grunge-Romanticism”.[17]  Cullen and the other artists worked hard to shake the ‘grunge’ tag.  Edward Colless’s entry on Cullen for the Art Gallery of NSW’s November 1993 Perspecta survey of new art sought to set the record straight, stating Cullen’s sculptural idiom was “‘para hi-tech’ rather than ‘grunge’.”[18]  Felicity Fenner, The Sydney Morning Herald’s critic at the time, also bought into the debate, stating Cullen’s work was “A genre beyond grunge”.[19]  For a brief time, the debate was hot.  It spilt from the page and into arguments amongst artists at openings and art students at inner city house parties.  I was an intern at Art & Text, being mentored by Gibson, and at one opening in Newtown I provocatively wore a t-shirt of a Gibson work from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Wit’s End exhibition.  I copped open hostility.  

As the feud cooled into 1994, I was asked by Eyeline magazine to write a review of Cullen’s Soft Material Facts, his first solo exhibition at Yuill/Crowley gallery in Sydney.  We met for a beer at The Stag on Parramatta Road and called an unspoken truce.  Eager to shed associations with ‘grunge’, Cullen made more self-consciously measured and austere work for his first big show at a commercial gallery, although he was still playing the bad boy.  My review said, “the work was like a problem child that would not do what it’s told— it wouldn’t fill the space, it wouldn’t look pretty or saleable, it tried to resist signification — not from any real will to subvert, but out of pure obstinacy.”[20] 

As Cullen moved upwards and onwards, we lost touch.  The last time we spoke was when I asked him a question at a packed public talk at the Art Gallery of NSW a few days after his Archibald win.  I asked, “Adam, what are you doing here?”.  He looked annoyed.  It was surreal to see him resurface six years later as a painter winning the Archibald, but his paintings maintained something of the aesthetic of his early work.  When I look now at Cullen’s paintings, I still see the obnoxious child refusing to behave appropriately in polite company.  I still see the “grunt” that Bruce James saw in his review of Cullen’s work the 1990s.[21]  I see his mix of humour and anger.  I still see grunge.  And, on hearing that word, I still see Adam with a beer, irascibly picking at the label.  

Photo caption: Adam Cullen at the opening of High Pop at Roslyn Oxley9, curated by Jeff Gibson, 28 April 1993.  Photo: Kit Messham-Muir. 

'Adam Cullen and the Cubists', an exhibition of art from Adam Cullen, Gavin Fry & Shannon Woodward opens Friday 25 August 6-8PM at Cooks Hill Galleries. More information and RSVP here.


[1] Shirthead at Mori Gallery in Sydney, May 7-21, 1993. 

[2] Adams curated by Hany Armanious, at Kunst in Sydney, March 21-April 17, 1993. 

[3] Rad Scunge curated by Dale Frank, at the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery in Melbourne, March 3-26, 1993.   

[4] Monster Field curated by ADS Donaldson, at The Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney, May 6-29, 1993.

[5] Scrounge Time curated by Edward Colless and David McDowell, at Plimsol Gallery, Centre for the Arts, Hobart, 1993. 

[6] Kit Messham-Muir, ‘Reconciling the Local and the Global in the Art of Adam Cullen’, Australian Studies 17:1, Summer 2002, 47.

[7] Jeff Gibson, ‘Avant-Grunge’, Art & Text 45, May 1993, 23-25.

[8] Gibson, ‘Avant-Grunge’, 23.

[9] Michael Hutak, ‘Body of decor in overdrive’, Sydney Morning Herald, 17/6/94, 28.

[10] Hutak, ‘Body of decor in overdrive’, 28.

[11] Gibson, ‘Avant-Grunge’, 23.

[12] Judy Annear, ‘Money, Movements and Museums’, Art & Australia 31:3, Autumn 1994, 330-331.

[13] Eve Sullivan, ‘The artist as curator’, Art Monthly Australia 61, July 1993, 34. 

[14] Eve Sullivan, ‘Adam Cullen’, Art & Text 45, May 1993, 69

[15] Eve Sullivan, ‘Mikala Dwyer’, Australian Perspecta 1993 (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1993) 32-33.

[16] Sullivan, ‘The artist as curator’, 33. 

[17] Graham Forsyth, ‘Monster Field’, Art & Text 46, September 1993, 74

[18] Edward Colless, ‘Adam Cullen’, Australian Perspecta 1993 (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1993) 24

[18] Sullivan, ‘The artist as curator’,

[19] Feliciy Fenner, ‘A genre beyond grunge’, Sydney Morning Herald,  3/6/94, 27. 

[20] Kit Messham-Muir, ‘Adam Cullen: Soft Material Facts’, Eyeline 25 (1994) 42

[21] Bruce James, ‘Finding Diamonds in the Rough’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 31/7/1999, 12s. 

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