Pushing the limits

Questioning . . . The late artist Paul Cullen at work. Photo: Supplied
Questioning . . . The late artist Paul Cullen at work. Photo: Supplied
The work of the late Paul Cullen, one  of New Zealand’s most respected sculptors and installation artists, is, for the first time, being shown at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Rebecca Fox finds out about the talented teacher who was always pushing the limits.

Pencil-infested furniture fragments, roof-top constructed gardens, chairs and tables pinned to ceilings with clusters of long battens, potted cacti and cast concrete polygons, or scientific instruments sprinkled with classificatory letters and numbers, Paul Cullen’s work often surprised people.

Marcus Moore. Photo: Supplied
Marcus Moore. Photo: Supplied
‘‘If a chair had four legs, he’d think of putting it on three legs. It was always a test of our perceptions of objects and space — he was a clever artist,’’ School of Art Whiti o Rehua, Massey University’s Marcus Moore says.

Moore along with Allan Smith (Elam School of Fine Art), have curated ‘‘Building Structures + +’’, an exhibition featuring a slice of the late artist’s work, that is the first new exhibition to open since Covid-19 shut down the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

While the exhibition has been in the works for a long time and its opening delayed by the lockdown, for DPAG curator Lucy Hammonds Cullen’s work is fitting for the time.

‘‘His art practice for his whole career was a process of inquiry and it did feel very sympathetic to how I feel coming back to work and the general state of affairs.’’

Cullen’s work follows a path of experimentation, trial and error, a reminder of the fundamental characteristics of learning and progress, she says.

‘‘Works such as Model: New Standard are contingent on balance and equilibrium — concepts of relevance at a time of instability. The tenacious spirit of Cullen’s art has felt like a natural accompaniment to the process of returning.’’

Moore says Cullen, who died in 2017 after a year’s struggle with motor neurone disease, would appreciate Hammonds drawing that connection.

‘‘As a trained scientist and sculptor he would have been fascinated by the impact of Covid.’’

Cullen and Moore had a close working relationship after meeting in 2012 to work on a project.

He describes him as an exceptionally gracious artist.

‘‘He had a lot of humility. He was very kind and considerate, had a good sense of humour and was a terrific teacher.’’

Cullen taught at Manukau Institute of Technology between 1996 and 2008, before moving to Auckland University of Technology, where he became an associate professor and head of the department of visual arts in 2014.

‘‘A lot of his students have gone on to do good things.’’

For an initial exhibition at Massey University’s The Engine Room this year, Moore recreated a work from Cullen’s 1979 show at the Barry Lett Galleries called Building Structures. For it, Cullen had installed 30 quasi-architectural balsa wood models around the walls, ceiling and floor.

‘‘It was really fascinating as they are the opposite of monuments. He was interested in anthropology and how humans build forms that we live in.’’

Moore recreated nine of the models and went to great lengths to try to find a piece of carpet that matched Cullen’s original speckled 1970s chocolate brown.

‘‘It’s good to look back to where his origins are — that was the genesis for me of this show. We go from very small works to one that really takes up the space.’’

The large work Model: New Show, which relies on a pulley system, has not been shown since 2010.

‘‘It’s a really significant work of his.’’

As an artist he was really interested in putting things in precarious balance or tension.

‘‘There is a spatial perception of gravity is really intriguing for viewers who come to galleries.’’

Cullen was interested in building structures, in anthropology, biology and architecture reflecting his earlier studies.

Before he studied art at the University of Canterbury in the 1970s, he had completed a bachelor of science degree in biology and spent a year studying landscape design at Lincoln University.

Later in his career, his interests developed into testing balance and tension such as tethering a chair to a ceiling, forcing a person to look up at something they would normally sit down on.

‘‘He was really interested in toying and playing with the language of physics and science. A lot of his career he was preoccupied with testing those sorts of limits.’’

Many of his sculptures have internal contractions and equilibrium allowing one half of the work to keep the other half suspended.

Cullen was working with ideas of objects having a precarious life, a sense of being.

‘‘He was interested in giving life to objects that were sometimes made by him but a lot of the time they were found objects. He used the means at hand quite a lot.’’

Cullen enjoyed working with found items and repurposing them. His works in the 1990s included dissected furniture and model globes or planets deployed like props for amateurish and absurdist science experiments.

‘‘He could be very playful.’’

In the 2000s, as part of his ongoing Attempts project, the HB pencil was installed at various locations around the world and photographed like tourist photos of a teddy bear snapped on a world tour.

Cullen received several awards, travel grants, and residencies, including the Moet et Chandon Artist Fellowship in France (1996), and a Senior Fulbright Award (2012) which took him to the architecture department at Auburn University, Alabama

The artist’s work is now looked after by the Paul Cullen Archives and for this latest exhibition Moore and Smith have pulled out some of his preparatory drawings, photographs and paper models to exhibit also.

‘‘When you look at his career’s work, we’ve brought out a select survey of diagrams, model making and various forms of temporary support structures.’’

They show Cullen’s quizzical interest in why people should observe the laws of physics.

Hammonds says Moore and Smith’s exhibition provided a good opportunity for the Dunedin community to experience Cullen’s works.

‘‘It’s a great opportunity to introduce this artist that not everybody might have heard of but who was really important and influential to a generation of artists here.’’

The series of preparatory drawings and sketches shows Cullen’s working process.

‘‘He was very project orientated and did not lock in any one way of working.’’

It was reflective of his fine art training — later in his career Cullen did a master of fine arts degree (2000) and completed a doctorate of fine arts (2007) at the University of Auckland — as well as his landscape and science background.

‘‘It’s the first new show opening so it is an interesting way to re-experience the gallery and provides a speculative way of thinking about art making.’’

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