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In the intellectual hiatus of post-eighties art, the vacuum left by the demise of a hypertrophied literal application of theory is quickly filling up. Among exhibitions last year which proposed forms of practice to fill the gap were Rad Scunge and Shirthead. They succeeded in establishing a certain critical, and in a sense political, space for some artists to benefit from this newly opened field.
Amid a degree of contention, the term "grunge" was applied to the artists in these exhibitions, especially Hany Armanious, Adam Cullen and Mikala Dwyer. The greatest objection to the term is from the artists themselves, remonstrating its pop-cultural associations and reductiveness. Their work nevertheless shares with its cultural namesake an aesthetic of home-spun, suburban, rough-cut, pop-povera. Given that art does not stand isolated from wider culture it is a connection that is not entirely inappropriate.
Concentrated critical attention and a common desire to rid themselves of the associations with grunge culture, have led to a reorientation and redefining of the individual projects of these artists. All recently have been adopted into commercial gallery stables, and are now reframing their projects in different and more distinct terms.
Soft Material Facts was the first solo exhibition for Adam Cullen at Yuill/Crowley gallery in Sydney. Transferred from the artist-run gallery circuit into the commercial gallery context, Cullen is in the process of redefining the parameters of his practice post-grunge.
Assembled along the far end of the gallery, Cullen's objects occupied a small area of the gallery floor and walls. Four sculptural works were laid out in an orderly fashion on the floor, each a form of botched-construction on rectangles of wood and plastic. Attached to three of the clay forms were generic office pens. Taped to the walls were educational aids for junior maths students, a standard file divider and ink drawings on plastic. There was a noticeable exclusion of the organic and bodily references which previously formed a large part of Cullen's art vocabulary.
In refiguring his practice, much of what we know of Cullen's work has been stripped away. The works are no longer "creatures"1. The preoccupation with a romanticGothic sense of pain and death is not apparent. He is no longer playing Dr. Frankenstein using road-killed animals and medical by-products as his organic resource. The mutability of meaning in Cullen's previous work has crystallised into a less speculative project. The bodily references, previously alluding to a concern with notions of abjection, have been evacuated from, or at least elided in these works.
While the concerns, and their material manifestations, in Soft Material Facts broke with the narrative of Cullen's earlier work, they perpetuated other aspects. Previous works have employed a kind of expressionist model, ostensibly proposing a spurious logic of amphetamised realities in place of the esoteric logic of philosophical discourse. As such, they attempted to resist unequivocal semiological unpacking. With regard to the works in question, Cullen states "to undress these works or to engage in a reflective analysis would be a futile and desiccated projection". In continuing to claim that the works defy analysis, Cullen is potentially closing off discourse around the work, potentially disqualifying the many readings that may be ventured.
Nevertheless, the exhibition drew meaning from its embourgeoised commercial context. For Cullen, the irreverent wanton repulsion of abject art has mutated into impertinence toward the affluent and corporate clientele. Soft Material Facts referenced a kind of bastardised office-equipment/junior school aesthetic. Appropriately, 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.
1. Colless, E., "Adam Cullen", in Australian Perspecta 1993, V. Lynn, Editor 1993, AGNSW. p.24.Yuill/Crowley, Sydney