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Australian art

Contemporary art

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John Travers



Adam Cullen


09 Oct 1965 - 28 Jul 2012


Adam Cullen turned to portrait painting in 1997 when he began entering the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Cullen eventually won in 2000 with his portrait of actor David Wenham and portraits have since become an important part of Cullen’s practice. Typically they are rapidly executed and have all the immediacy and expressive power of quickly applied paint that drips, pools and runs down the canvas. However Cullen usually has sketched and thought through the portrait composition before executing the work so that the image is fixed in his mind prior to applying paint to canvas. This tension between control and spontaneity adds to the expressive power of the works.

In 2003 Cullen was invited to participate in an exhibition entitled ‘Anita & beyond’ at the Penrith Regional Gallery, which explored the legacy of local beauty queen and nurse Anita Cobby’s brutal murder in 1986. Cullen’s controversial contribution was portraits of Anita’s five convicted killers. The strongest of his portraits was of ringleader John Travers, painted from the police mug shot that appeared again and again in media reports of the murder – an image that remains fixed in time even as Travers ages in prison.

The reds, yellows and blues in the face of the portrait give it a flushed and garish hue, while the downcast eyes are mute, giving nothing away. This masking of vision occurs often in Cullen’s figures and is strongly suggestive, implying both an unknowable inner world and a lack of engagement. There is a fine line between the criminal as underdog, celebrated in Australian culture as the antihero who stands up against a repressive law and order as we see in the prevalence of legends such as Ned Kelly’s within the national and artistic psyche, and the flip side of the criminal sociopaths and killers demonised for their horrific crimes. The picking and choosing of which criminals achieve antihero status and which remain beyond redemption can seem somewhat arbitrary since brutality is often a common factor and the perceived innocence or guilt of the victim seems to moderate the public response.




Media category


Materials used

synthetic polymer paint on canvas


152.5 x 121.5 cm


Anonymous gift 2008


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Adam Cullen

Works in the collection


Shown in 3 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 9 publications


Jeremy Eccles, Art Monthly Australia, ‘Anita & Beyond at Penrith Regional Gallery’, pg. 6, Canberra, Jun 2003, 6-7, 7 (colour illus.).

Lisa Havilah, Anita & beyond, 2003, 62 (colour illus.).

Alison Kubler, Our place in the Pacific: recent work by Adam Cullen, 2003.

Catharine Lumby, The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Adam Cullen 1965-2012: artist was drawn to darker side of human existence', pg. 18, Sydney, 31 Jul 2012, 18.

Louise Martin-Chew, The Weekend Australian, ‘Slap in the darkness’, p 7, Sydney, 07 Jun 2003-08 Jun 2003, 7.

Joyce Morgan, The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Artists put human face of tragedy in new light’, pg. 17, Sydney, 03 Mar 2003, 17 (illus.).

Ingrid Periz, Adam Cullen: scars last longer, 2004, 100 (colour illus.).

Ingrid Periz, Art and Australia (Vol. 41, No. 3), ‘Pup, your mouth’s too big for your boots’, pg.424, Sydney, Mar 2004-May 2004, 424.

Wayne Tunnicliffe, Adam Cullen: let's get lost, Sydney, 2008, 79 (colour illus.).