Friday, 19 July 2019

Book review: Acute Misfortune, Erik Jensen (2014)

It’s hard to know how to label this work of nonfiction but for the sake of brevity and of accuracy I’d say it’s a kind of biography. The subject is the Sydney painter Adam Cullen who died in 2012 aged 46 as a result of substance abuse.

As a piece of journalism Jensen’s narrative is well-crafted and you don’t get overloaded with unnecessary detail. On the other hand some parts are not as clear as they should be, for example the part of the book that deals with Cullen’s half-brother’s girlfriend Katie. I couldn’t work out why so much time was being spent on her. Had she tried to come on to Cullen? Was there a small indiscretion?

Apart from this, the story is engrossing and useful rather than revelatory. If Jensen is trying to emulate Helen Garner in this work there are some things missing. Jensen completely avoids talking about his own reactions to Cullen, even when Cullen started getting frisky, with the exception of some faint remarks on the question of whether the artist was a homosexual (it’s not clear from the book or from what I could find online if Jensen is gay). Cullen’s expressions of affection for Jensen make Jensen think that Cullen had been in love with him, but as for any information about Jensen that might help the reader to make sense of any of this: there is nothing. Zip. Zilch.

Jensen also strangely misspells the name of the Sydney suburb where Cullen’s father Kevin Cullen first came to live when he (Kevin) moved from rural NSW to the big smoke. In the book it’s spelled “Bellfield” whereas in reality it should be “Belfield”. (There is a “Bellfield” in Melbourne.) Belfield is Bulldogs country, as Cullen, who grew up in Collaroy on the northern beaches, would have known. But Jensen doesn’t seem to know the area and if you try to find out any information about Jensen online you will be disappointed. He worked as a critic for the Sydney Morning Herald from the time he was a teenager and then was employed by the paper, but I couldn’t find any information about where he was born and grew up, where he went to school, and what his parents did for a crust.

Sydney is a self-conscious town so this kind of information in this kind of book, where the relationship between the subject and the author is so close, is material. But it’s completely missing. It should hardly need to be mentioned that including the author in the narrative when writing journalism is so common it’s not even remarkable anymore. In fact, one of Cullen’s heroes, Hunter Thompson, made his reputation out of exactly this kind of writing. To leave out who you are and where you are coming from in a book like Jensen’s smacks of the kind of elitist remoteness that Cullen found so abhorrent during his life. He wanted to have contact with people, he craved it, and he suffered when it was not provided.

Cullen encouraged him to write, and Jensen is very willing to open the record books wide to display Cullen’s character and motivations – he even says outright that Cullen is not just a fabulist but a flat-out liar, and this happens more than once – but when it comes to giving the reader the information he or she needs to make sense of the story, he clams up. It seems from the information available that Jensen now lives and works in Melbourne. He has an editorial role with the left-leaning The Saturday Paper, which is backed by progressive property developer and publishing company owner Morrie Schwartz. It’s hard to know from the evidence available what kind of person Jensen is, and whether he has the depth of character and the intellectual honesty you need to do justice to a person as complex as Cullen in a book of this nature. Is Jensen a typical inner-city latte-sipping luvvie or does he have some meat on his bones? From reading the book and from what is available online it’s hard to decide either way, although I have my suspicions.

Having said these things, his book is not completely baffling, although it read a bit drily at times. I learned a lot about a man who came to prominence in the nation’s art world and for this I am grateful. Adam Cullen had something of the mongrel about him and he reminded me in some ways of Nick Kyrgios. He experienced strong impulses that he had trouble controlling, and this is not uncommon for Australian men generally. (I wonder idly what Tim Winton would think of this book.) There was something unhinged about Cullen, but in the end he came to be seen, as is the way of the Sydney cultural establishment when it comes across a difficult and creative rebel, as emblematic of the city he grew up in. Cullen craved recognition but at the same time pushed people away.

So this is a very Sydney book. The city is nothing if not needy of recognition as well as more often than not elusive when you ask it for solace. There is, furthermore, not a word in the book about football of any kind, which would have been unthinkable if Cullen had been brought up in Melbourne where Australian rules clubs are like churches. Cullen responded strongly to art from an early age. He had a good relationship with his father, whom he loved. He had a complex relationship with his mother. He struggled at school. He rebelled against the art establishment when he turned away from conceptual art and started making paintings that were largely figurative; Cullen’s embrace of this kind of painting was part of a return to figurative painting in Australia generally and it is now, for example, easy to find contemporary Romantic landscapes in commercial galleries.

Cullen was a better painter than Whiteley but both artists put their stamp on the culture that formed and nurtured them. As for Jensen’s book, I think that it does the job it set out to do but, in the end, I felt a bit let down by the author’s reticence. The extraordinarily talented Cullen warranted a more passionate and engaged approach from his first biographer. We’ll have to see what others produce down the track; it is extremely unlikely that this will be the last book on Cullen’s life and art.

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