Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Downtown Cullen

Paul Cullen: Situations
Sanders cnr Queen and Shortland
18 November - December 18, 2009

In recent years Paul Cullen has become known for his sculptures of ‘mutilated’ wooden furniture perforated by hundreds of unsharpened, yellow HB pencils, and also his ‘stilt-towers’ of inverted tubular chairs and Formica tables - pinioned against ceilings with weedy strips of clamped timber.

Cullen’s interest in gravity and pencils continues in this show with the sculptures. In one work, gravity is indicated by a cast block of green concrete set into a hole in a desk top so it looks a bit like sponge. The desk is not that rickety, so you wouldn’t initially sense that its wellbeing might be jeopardised by the presence of the crushing weight. In another work, a toppled chair is held away from the floor by a pencil jammed between its back rest and the leg of an inverted three-legged coffee table underneath. There is a Dada-influenced humour present like that of many contemporary sculptors, such as Erwin Wurm.

Furniture in Cullen’s hands is a trope for the human body’s need for muscular repose, when static in a space. It is this symbol for practical functionality that he plays with, squeezes, wraps, squashes and loads up. There seems to be a funny sort of sadism implied. A strange attack, not on the corporeal self, but on something more abstract, logic’s link to pragmatism.

On the walls are several of his recent Situation photographs. These are an elaboration of the earlier Attempts series, where Cullen included on the mounts captions under the image. Now however his use of language has changed. Whereas previously he had a rambling – slightly disconnected - commentary about the content of the image and the day’s events, and often some local history, now he just mentions the relevant street, city and country to undermine any possible essentialist interpretations of each image.

Thus he has replaced the subtly humorous anecdotes with a focus on the limitations of place as a defining notion. He seems to be examining the ubiquitous and mundane, focussing on the universal but dreary – and avoiding the memorable or unique. Within such bland settings he often creates a metaphor for art’s function as an ideational conduit, presenting ‘art’ telephones cable-tied to chair legs. Other works document some of his temporary sculptures, and others still play with photography as a medium, mimicking perspectival vectors in the image (lines or edges), or hiding parts of objects that you know must be present.

The three telephone photographs repeat Cullen’s interest in tools that symbolically reflect art’s conceptual or physical process, other tropes being the pencils, carpenter rules, or clamps. Other sculptures reference the history of science (via the anti-gravity structures) and global expansionism (mocking globes by covering them with tape, or rotating them as stars - in the form of plastic ‘Sunshine’ oranges – obscenely located in the seat of wooden chairs).

Cullen’s show takes up the largest of the three small rooms at Sanders’ venue, with an old work in a tiny side gallery and another artist in the third. It is a shame he did not have new work in all three rooms – Cullen is a major international talent who deserves to be far better known. He needs to be presented with impact.

Images courtesy of Jane Sanders and the artist

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