Originally published in Inquire newspaper (University of Kent)
Billy Childish: painter, poet, novelist and musician, really does just do what he wants regardless of what he is apparently supposed to be doing. His audience counts celebrity followers such as The White Stripes, Nirvana and Kylie Minogue, but the chances are you have not heard of Childish. Preferring the quiet life in his place of birth, Chatham, Kent, Childish says: “economically speaking it’s easier. I’m not interested in parties and theatre. I don’t do hob-knobbing so it’s the ideal place.” However, in a critical study of his work, with an introduction written by his friend Peter Doig, he is described by artist and writer, Neal Brown, as “one of the most outstanding, and often misunderstood, figures on the British art scene.”
In separating himself from the media he lives out the integral idea behind his artwork, as his intention has always been to do what he wants to do. Childish works quickly, painting expressive, extremely personal pictures in as little as 15 minutes. “I like sneaking up on myself and working fast and engaging the unconscious rather than the conscious”, Childish proclaims. Some critics resent his work deeming it too amateurish or unprofessional, but he believes the word “amateur” is misinterpreted. “I think amateurism is used the wrong way round in our language” says Childish. With its origin in the French “lover of”, it should be a term of endearment.
As one of the founding members of the Stuckist movement – he and co-founder Charles Thomson opposed the state of contemporary art returning to a style based on figurative painting rather than the concept dependent work which dominated the art world – it’s clear he has some strong opinions about what art should be: “I was very into the way [Dada] irritated the underbelly of the art establishment”, Childish explains. “I was interested in Dada in its first incarnation, when I was first a punk rocker around 1977… but I didn’t like Dada as investment banking, which is what I thought the Brit artists were more aligned to… what I term ‘Banker’s Dada’”
Suffering sexual and emotional abuse as a child, Childish relies on his painting as a medium or self ventilation rather than as a means to make a living. This is not to take away from the work itself, nor the price tag, it is just in Billy Childish’s world money is lower on his ‘to do list’ than spiritual advancement, and talking to him you soon understand the contention that exists between the two. “The only thing that brings real contentment is relationships, relationships with others and our relationships with ourselves”, he says. Billy scoffs at what he terms the aggrandisement of the ego in all its forms and as we chat our gentle chat, while drinking green tea prepared for us by his beautiful wife Julie, in his kitchen plastered in Childish’s paintings – with a familiar smell harking back to my hippyish childhood – I understand that despite his extremely idiosyncratic existence, his is quite nicely in check.
During our interview Childish cites the emotional abuse as being the harder of the two to come to terms with. His novels cover these and many of the problems he has struggled with over the years, including a long period of alcoholism during which time his painting was much darker and surprisingly more contrived. Often noted for the sheer volume of work he produces, Childish demonstrates his creativity in many different medias. To date he has created more than 2000 paintings and published 40 volumes of poetry. During his time in a number of bands, including Thee Milkshakes and his current band The Musicians of the British Empire he has released over 100 albums, demonstrating just how prolific he really is.
In his writing talks he talks about his ‘youthful experiment in sexual relations with a dog’, which may or may not have happened, I feared to ask. He went through school with undiagnosed dyslexia and was refused entry to a local art school upon leaving education with no qualifications. After a short time working at Chatham dockyard, in the “tea-huts from hell” as a stonemason, he gained entry to St Martin’s School of Art solely on the quality of his portfolio under their “genius” clause. He was however, soon expelled and it was shortly after he met and entered into a relationship with Tracey Emin who counted him as a major influence on her work before a falling out between the two in 1999 over the policy of the Stuckist movement, which also encapsulated Emin who gave up painting because she didn’t think it would make her enough money. Childish doesn’t seem to create with money in mind. He can happily exhibit his work, not selling a single piece, just being content with having produced the art – some say he is often guilty of committing commercial suicide, he calls it being authentic.
Thanks to Helen Woollison for editorial and research support.