Billy Childish’s sincere, deeply unselfconscious paintings.
Punk rock icon, poet, novelist, luftmensch, wearer of extraordinary hats and Edwardian mustaches—Billy Childish is a multiplicity of things, a British renaissance man. But first and foremost he is a marvelous painter, as can be seen at the Lehmann Maupin Gallery through October 31.
If you’re coming from his unabashedly confessional writing or his music, the restraint in his work might surprise you. Childish’s paintings generally revolve around the figure isolated in landscape: oystermen on heavy flat riverboats; a woman and children riding a sleigh in the nineteenth-century Yukon; the Swiss writer Robert Walser dead in the snow outside the psychiatric hospital where he was a patient. Most affecting, perhaps, is a series of recent paintings of the artist walking with his young daughter through fields or trees, or standing in a lush garden. Typically positioned in the center of the canvas, father and daughter look straight out at the viewer and yet retain a deep emotional inwardness. We take them in, but the mystery of their individuality remains intact.
There’s another kind of displacement going on in these paintings, too. Heavily outlined and full of lovely but eccentric color—a plum-colored river with green ripples; a lime-green coat against a child’s red beret—they ignore the current cultural moment in order to engage with a small group of artists from the turn of the previous century: Van Gogh, Munch, Klimt, Schiele, and through them the Japanese woodblock tradition, with its flattened space and strong decorative bent. Van Gogh seems particularly important: in picture after picture, Childish uses electric white squiggles to make sky, clouds, the blanket of fallen leaves charged and numinous, a swirl of energy around his figures.
Childish’s engagement with his influences feels intuitive and unselfconscious, without a trace of knowingness or postmodern irony, the very opposite of an art-historical reference. That approach is so rare in the art world nowadays that I actually stopped to ask myself why it feels so good—and then I e-mailed the question to Matthew Higgs, director of the alternative art space White Columns and and a longtime champion of Childish’s work.
“Billy’s art wears its influences on its sleeve,” Higgs wrote back. “That in itself is fairly unusual. There is a sincerity at play that is also uncommon. As in his music and his writing, there is a prevailing desire to communicate, often on a very visceral level.”
Childish’s eccentric and often painful path to becoming an artist is documented in his poetry and fiction, which are the opposite of his painting: autobiographical and raw, anchored in the tradition of angry working-class social critique that created punk. Dyslexic, he didn’t learn to read till he was fourteen. His poetry makes moving use of his erratic spelling, turning it into a visible trace of his struggle to claim the language as a medium for feeling. At sixteen, he apprenticed as a stonemason in the local dockyards—the last apprentice to the last geriatric stonemason still employed there—a trap he escaped by smashing his hand with a hammer and going on the dole. He knew he wanted to be an artist, but two attempts at art school ended in disaster: he seemed unable to conform to the standard idea of what an art student should care about. There was a protracted battle with alcohol and a formative and highly tempestuous romance with the conceptual artist Tracey Emin, who would go on to become a member of the so-called Young British Artists—an insider and media darling, in contrast to Childish’s position as perennial outsider.
Actually, Childish likes to reverse those terms. In an interview with the Guardian last year, he said, “I consider my work mainstream. I think the mainstream are the outsiders and I’m the way it should be.”
That sense of unblinking certainty has enabled him to pursue his art outside of established structures, creating over the last thirty-five years a truly gargantuan body of work that for the most part he has distributed himself to very small audiences: 150 self-produced recordings; five novels and forty-five collections of poetry published through his imprint, Hangman Press; and more than two thousand canvases that, until fairly recently, he sold on his own.
That vast output reflects a deeply considered creative process focused on intuition and improvisation—on the experience of creation rather than its trace. Childish told AnOther in 2014, “I tend to start and finish a painting in one sitting and rarely return to correct or edit … Basically, if the painting goes well I get out of the way and allow the picture to paint itself … I don’t fear or care much about an audience or possible failure.”
Childish’s approach to making paintings ties into a larger view of the role of art in life, and it informs the work in powerful ways, infusing it with an interest in the unity of experience that is essentially mystical. He told AnOther:
I paint, write, and make music, but these are mundane descriptions. We are all creative but some of us have it in our nature, or necessity, to maintain this and give whatever art form we choose preeminence in our lives. I believe that all these attributes are non-personal and from God: any minor investigation into reality will reveal that we create nothing within the universe; we merely manifest within it. What we are is not very clear to us.
In recent years, Childish’s painting has begun to garner attention from the international gallery system that previously ignored him, with shows in Berlin, Hong Kong, and New York. It appears possible that he was right all along about being mainstream. Matthew Higgs told me, “Billy arguably makes more ‘sense’ now than at any point in the past thirty-plus years. His work clearly connects with the more recent interest in the work of self-taught artists and so-called ‘outsider’ artists, but I think it is his independence and self-determination that resonate most strongly. He could have ‘sold out’ at many points in his career but instead he created both a platform and a context for himself so that he could work at his own pace and on his own terms.”
I e-mailed Childish to ask him what he thought of becoming an art-world insider at this relatively late date, and his answer was characteristically matter of fact. “I’ve always made the paintings I make for the sake of the paintings themselves. A big show is great because I have the excuse to make more and bigger work—and I might get paid as well—unless no one wants them. Before my ‘overnight success’ five years ago, I was surprised I rarely sold paintings, now I’m just as surprised that I do. But either way I just paint—doing as the painting requires—I’m its obedient servant.”
“Flowers, Nudes and Birch Trees: New Paintings 2015” is at Lehmann Maupin, till October 31.