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Paul Cullen

Models, Methods and Assumptions

2012
found book, acrylic and pencils
220mm x 65mm x 145mm

signed Paul Cullen and dated 2012 in ink

Provenance

Private collection, Auckland.

Exhibitions

The Obstinate Object: Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture, City Gallery, Wellington, 24 February – 10 June 2012.

Essay

Te Awamutu-born Paul Cullen (1949-2017) was, without doubt, one of the most interesting and truly individual creative intelligences to emerge fr...

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Estimate $700 - $1,400

Paul Cullen

Models, Methods and Assumptions

2012

found book, acrylic and pencils

signed Paul Cullen and dated 2012 in ink

220mm x 65mm x 145mm

Auction N˚7

Estimate $700 - $1,400

Precarious Knowledge

by Andrew Paul Wood

Te Awamutu-born Paul Cullen (1949-2017) was, without doubt, one of the most interesting and truly individual creative intelligences to emerge from New Zealand art in the mid-twentieth century. His influence as an educator, at Manakau Institute of Technology and AUT, was profound. Following a Diploma in Fine Arts from Ilam, he first drew attention as an artist for his installation work in Christchurch in the late 1970s, and in the early 1980s for his cane-based sculptures.

Cullen’s art, like that of Duchamp before him, (perhaps with a dash of Dada) was as playfully mischievous as it was cerebral, in love with paradox and unusual juxtapositions, documenting the Western world through a subtle critique of its material semiotics, from Formica tables, books, pencils and rulers, to the natural world, to the cult of scientism, and a general sense of precariousness and ephemerality. A bundle of canes might represent the universe, or at the very least measure it out. Like a good ironic pragmatist, he was interested in the processes and knowledges by which humans attempt to answer the big questions, rather than fussing over an ultimate, capital “T” Truth that might not even exist in the first place.

It was Cullen’s BSc in botany that inspired his interest in the organisational logic of nature, leading in turn to a fascination with anthropology and the way humans organise themselves socially. He tried to represent these ideas physically and visually through artworks that themselves evolved throughout their duration, continually reorganising signs and signifiers in unexpected new relationships (something shared with Merilyn Tweedie, to whom he was married for a time and had two children with). And, as the internet evolved and grew, Cullen’s art became increasingly relevant in thinking through these issues as the virtual, digital and networked infiltrated and transformed the fabric of reality. In many ways, Cullen’s installations were like analogue models of surfing the web from site to site on a whim.

Everything in Cullen’s oeuvre is a paradox, an oxymoron, a circumlocution, an inversion, a subversion: a table might be turned upside-down, a chair might sit precariously high atop a pole, a cardboard box might hold water; the functional is rendered useless, and the ornamental is given a new and essential purpose. There is something theatrical about these works, as though they were the stage set and properties of an avant-garde play. They are surreal in a manner reminiscent of Isidore-Lucien Ducasse, the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont’s description of a young boy as being as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”—a line that Max Ernst helpfully glossed as representing “a linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.” What if it all makes sense, but we’re on the outside looking in, and the key, primer, syntax or whatever, is dangling tantalizingly just out of reach?

Books, particularly encyclopaedias, atlases and other textbooks, appeared a lot in Cullen’s work. They were concrete symbols of condensed, mediated, human knowledge, indexes between physical object and concept. Jorge Luis Borges was getting at this idea when he wrote the 1940 short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” about a parallel universe in which Berkeleyan subjective idealism (the idea that only the mind and its contents exist) is orthodoxy and our materialistic, rational worldview is heresy. Anticipating the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language conditions the way we think, Borges imagines that universe trying to colonise, or rather, transform and assimilate our universe, through a single anomalous volume of an encyclopaedia.