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About two years ago, Adam Cullen chewed the last pieces of flesh from the bones of grunge and hung them out to dry. He then took up paper, pen, squabs of paint, beer labels – a few ready-made consumer 'entertainables' (video cameras and brand new bubble-cars), and created a kind of artist's vaudeville of the 'lousy audition'.
While his earlier pieces featured mummified cats and life support systems 'dressed as urinals', it was the attachment of carefully phrased titles to these objects that brought Cullen's uncanny poetry to more mature artworld attention. There is still a kind of routine extremism that Cullen exhibits in crashing through from one exhibition to the next. And while his working methods and materials often still appear sloppy and slap-dash, the approach and the prey are beginning to appear more focused and better chosen.
Amputated phrase and spidery hieroglyph inhabit every corner of Special, Cullen 's latest Yuiii/Crowley outing (after the very successful Australian Labor Party, also at Yuiii/Crowley, in 1996.) The exhibition title, Special, may well have been cut from the title of a previous work, Special Lite Nude, which featured a foetus with a six-pack beer cap- Cullen's homage to 'fluid' apprenticeship. The title is here re-attached to a bunch of (seemingly) vapid mutterings, blobs and scribblings. Perhaps it re-iterates the sign of the six-pack, which in turn tells the story of 'beer-assessed' limited edition, drive-away, no-more-to-pay, fantastic, 'never-to-be-repeated' artworks. Cullen 's pictures repeat on themselves, an embarrassment to uniqueness, a long (domestic) champagne burp at an exhibition opening.
Yet to say that these works are 'knowingly' bereft of content is to miss the current drift in Cullen's oeuvre. Really, there is no grubby minimalism in sight. Instead I find traces of delinquent copyrighting; an (impromptu) advertising pitch gone off the rails and left hanging in a space from which the client has beat a hasty retreat.
Some of the works are neatly labelled, insulating us from the smears, blotches and childish scrawl that inhabit the inside of the panels of photographic paper and canvas. With titles like Terms and Conditions (for a creeping page of sad rants and mantras), and Fatal Ambiguity for another whorl of disconnected verbiage, (some) viewers may get the impression of cookie-cut 'commercial' words (mimicking titles tor contracts, titles for movies) framing shabby conceptual ramblings, which are viral rather than reductive.
When the word-soup finally spills off the surface and begins replicating – as in Most Super League Oofta antibiotics kill gnostics and female cops – one finds some fuzzy sight-lines and a vanishing point installed back inside the work as a kind of prophylactic agent. It is an unexpected challenge to anyone caught loitering in the 'safe house' of a gallery space: ‘Do you want to be a dumb reader or do you want to be a smart looker?’ The artist otters a few calming words to ease the panic of feeling forced to choose: ‘My paintings give you the feeling that I'm talking to myself. There's also an awareness of the sub/urban landscape, it's painted language and anatomy.’
Cullen has – consciously or not – adapted Freud's remark that a certain cutsey fondness tor little kids is really just a masked contempt for their lack of motor co-ordination. It's written all over Inappropriate Elation, a nine minute video of a jerking playground horse attached to a giant spring. Here the artist has surgically removed the children, giving this particular excerpt of 'Australia's funniest playground disasters' an adults only poignancy. Some may laugh, but it left me on the verge of a twenty-eighth panic attack tor 1997.