Like a girl with facial tattoos and rainbow hair searching for a spoon in the ambassador’s kitchen, the pictures of a painter with a legacy of working outside the system can appear awkward in a blue chip gallery. The knee-jerk reaction is to presume the artist has gone soft, sold out, been absorbed at last by the main stream. In the case of Billy Childish—poet, novelist, musician, painter—from whom the elemental acid of punk rock’s primal ethos gushes forth geyser-like, the surprise is not that he would have a solo show at a top level gallery (during auction season no less), but that it took so long to happen.
I am the Billy Childish is first and foremost an exhibition of paintings, seven to be exact (most executed this year), and they are bold. There is also a pair of vitrines displaying old zines, chapbooks, woodcuts, novels, and a wall of fifty-five record albums that feature Childish’s cover art and his many bands. He’s released over one hundred LPs, so it’s not as if music is a side project. The point of these displays is to contextualize the paintings, to make evident Childish’s legacy as a rebel polymath. It would have been better if the gallery had put a few records on a turntable, or supplied a seat for the visitor wishing to read some of Childish’s exceptional prose and poetry. (There are a few gallery copies at the front desk well-worth thumbing through.) Hopefully next time.
Billy Childish, Erupting Volcano, 2011.
Childish is a fifty-two-year-old Brit from the seaside town of Chatham who paints in the brushy style of Edvard Munch and van Gogh. His fine-grain linen canvas is ungessoed and visible through lines that squiggle and squirm. The linseed oil that glistens from certain angles is fresh enough to perfume the air. Traces of charcoal, presumably from underdrawings, stand out at close range. The majority of the paintings are big and the gallery’s quarters are fairly tight, so a few of the canvases seem to tower over you.
The subject matter is classic Romanticism: mountain climbers, men in urban outfits strolling in the woods or stopping for seat. There is an ominous looking guy on horseback and another of a man in a wide-brimmed hat, arms folded across his chest, legs stretched out between two chairs. The only two paintings without a human presence depict the sublime moment of a volcano eruption. Plumes of blue smoke billow and curl; the molten rock looks like tulips melting. The mood that runs through these seven paintings is ecstatic, a sense of electric energy caught mid-pulse that is generated through the combination of the artist’s painterly technique and his daring use of chromatically high-keyed pinks, blues, and greens that bend and twist like scattered tendrils across the entire surface.
That these paintings portray not just archetypes but real people gives them historical weight. The seated man is Edward Elgar; the strolling man is Jean Sibelius—both classical composers. Toni Kurz is the mountain climber and the dreary looking horseman is Lt. Sydney A Cloman of the 1st Infantry on the battleground of Wounded Knee. The titles supply these names though not in full, as if the intention was to dissolve these men into prototypical characters or, at least, to push a curious visitor to do a bit of research on their own, an exercise that quickly reveals the artist’s source photographs.
If there is one person to thank for getting Childish’s work on such fancy walls it’s the British curator and artist Matthew Higgs, an old mate who has organized solos for Childish since the early nineties. Everyone needs a champion, especially if you’re an artist unwilling to conform to the popular conceptions of being such—no academic education, no commitment to any single medium, the boldness of working in a style that so unabashedly updates a name brand like van Gogh. The thing is Childish, like Bob Dylan, could probably care less about violating artistic taboos. He’s just doing what he’s always done with a passion and a persistence that raises the bar for every creative individual who imagines him or herself capable of multi-talent.
~Charlie Schultz, a writer living in New York.
top image: Billy Childish, Sibelius Amongst Saplings, 2011; all images courtesy Lehmann Maupin.