Natasha Conland

Paul Cullen (1949–2017)

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Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki wishes to acknowledge the life of prominent New Zealand artist Paul Cullen, who died on Monday evening here in Auckland.

Paul first exhibited at the Auckland City Art Gallery, as it was then known, in 1976 as a participant in New Zealand Drawing, then again in 1977 in Young Contemporaries and Auckland Artists – a run of exhibitions designed to show the progressive or ‘new and interesting’ but not yet decoded art in the local scene. Then, in 1978, he was one of 17 artists in New Zealand Sculptors at Mildura. Paul had participated in the 1978 Mildura Sculpture Triennial, Victoria, Australia, which was something of a forecast for new ideas in sculptural practice regionally. His work at Mildura, Movement, A Transition, composed from stones, white string and sticks, was purchased by the Mildura Arts Centre and was in many ways radical for its sparsity of materials, economy and depth of reasoning. This period of a high degree of experimentation set a course for the artist for much of his professional life. Born in 1949 and the student of sciences at the University of Auckland and Fine Arts at University of Canterbury, Paul balanced (often literally) these spheres of interest throughout his career. Behind the scenes in Auckland he was also working making furniture, a pursuit with many reference points in his art work to follow, including the elegiac Science (pool complex) from 1994/5 in the Chartwell Collection.

Then in 1986 Paul Cullen was selected for Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art Sculpture 1 at the Gallery. By this stage his exhibition history included exhibitions in the main centres and representation in commercial galleries. Ever the thoughtful artist, the work Paul made for this exhibition was titled Constructing the process/logic by which we build, 1986, in which a series of simple bricks poetically stood-in for different construction processes at their most elemental, these were adjacent to an elegant series of drawings for imaginative possibilities.

Most recently Paul was represented at the Gallery in the 2012 exhibition Made Active: The Chartwell Show, again with a work of witty, simplicity and intelligence. Paul was a perfect fit for the exhibition, which was drawing together artists who explored ‘action’ from otherwise still objects. This imaginative leap and exploration of physical probabilities suited the artist's now long career.

When an artist’s life ends it is typical to wish there had been more opportunity to see their work and hear in their own words, how they understood the world and the creative act. Paul leaves two children, who our thoughts go out to at this time, and for our own civic purposes, he leaves works in our collection, which will continue to testify to his interests in their own time.