Tributes flow for Adam Cullen

Archibald winner: Wentworth Falls artist Adam Cullen in his studio. Photo: David Darcy.
Archibald winner: Wentworth Falls artist Adam Cullen in his studio. Photo: David Darcy.

One of Australia’s leading contemporary artists Adam Cullen — whose distinctively eerie paintings were often influenced by his fascination with death — died in his sleep at his Wentworth Falls home on Sunday, July 29 following a lengthy battle with illness.

Renowned for his 2000 Archibald Prize-winning portrait of actor David Wenham, the 47-year-old was a finalist in the prize on at least 10 occasions but in 2006 told the Gazette “the Archibald . . . is as far from art as an antique gun sale”.

“I think that I’m just there for entertainment.”

As in his art, Cullen never held back his true thoughts or shied away from controversy.

He saw art as needing to be bold, daring and explorative.

During a Gazette interview he once said “there are about three or four artists up here [in the Blue Mountains] who are really, really good”.

Of the others he said: “I think it’s just that they make wallpaper, and we don’t.”

Cullen first captured attention while an art student by chaining a rotting pig’s head to his ankle for his performance art project and recently kept specimens of animals killed by cars or hunters inside his freezer as subjects for a project.

He raised eyebrows when he collaborated with convicted criminal and close friend Mark “Chopper” Read for their intentionally bloodthirsty children’s book, Hooky the Cripple.

Another well-known Cullen painting designed to surprise and shock was his portrait of Edmund Capon, former director of the Art Gallery of NSW, dribbling down the canvas like a decomposing animal — an Archibald Prize finalist Mr Capon liked so much he hung it in his office.

In 2010 Cullen’s work Gareth at the Country Fair was selected as a finalist in the Archibald Awards. That year he was also the subject of his friend Nigel Milsom’s entry which depicted him as a black-cloaked figure leaning forward with a goulish grin, a raven perched on his right hand.

Cullen told the Gazette he “liked it a lot because it’s a lot like me and how I feel”.

In a Sydney court hearing last November, Cullen’s lawyer and close friend Charles Waterstreet said the artist was bipolar and faced serious physical and mental health problems.

He had recently had his pancreas removed, was diabetic and took 11 medications per day.

Cullen received a 10-month suspended jail sentence after appearing on drink-driving and firearms charges.

“We have lost a great artist, who lived and breathed the life of an artist,” Mr Waterstreet told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday.

Katoomba photographer David Darcy was invited by Cullen to visit his studio in March.

“Adam wanted to use and discuss some of the photos I’d taken for [the Australian film] Red Dog as inspiration for paintings of dogs he was working on,” he said.

“I spent about one-and-a-half hours with him and he didn’t seem very well — he seemed frail yet his mind was very sharp and he was very quick-witted.

“I remember saying to him it must be wonderful being well-known and I found his reply very profound.

“He said ‘you wouldn’t like my life — it’s very hard being Adam Cullen’.”