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What’s left behind, what’s still working well & methods of transcendence: an interview with Billy Childish
by Norah Dineen

Berlin, Apr. 2013: Ironically, Billy Childish always uses language in a way to slip out of being lesser than life and adhering to “Art”. (He is clearly not the formaldehyde fanatic/stuckist!) There is constant referencing to (fixed) figures from the past, fictional and real. The un-amended, unresolved, whirling and self-involved world of a dictum of questioning by Dostoyevsky or other romantic lone figures.

One might think, and especially in reading around Childish and reading his poetry (and interviewing him), that he can be categorized into a cult/marginal drop out figure…romantic in nature and yet traditional in ways.

From walking around the rooms of his current exhibition of paintings at Münzstrasse 23 (in Mitte Berlin), one is free from the ideas or persona surrounding this artist and simply follows a movement between worlds and senses an underlying depth and meaning in the (chaotic) ordering of subjects. He commits to the mundane but refuses to adhere to labels from the outside looking in “audience” aspect. His paintings are as much a surprise to him as to others. An inner world is revealed from his life in Chatham UK.

My first thought/impression was of Peter Doig in terms of aesthetic and referencing to mystical makeshift lone figures dropped into sea landscape dreamworlds. Everything is of another world, or merging of worlds in a way, and into a still image of life's order according to the artist.

However, as I looked more in depth at the paintings, seeing Childish himself and figures in his life (family) story within these paintings, it took on a different meaning. What struck me about his work was the juxtaposition and playfulness between an almost early Van Gogh (pre-post impressionist use of brighter colours; The Potato Eaters for example) draftsmanship/caricature/transcendent marking out of human forms in their environment, mixed with a more laissez-faire/confused/hyper/confessional/fluorescent contemporary feel.

To be honest, I was introduced to Billy Childish in art college, on hearing about the Stuckist movement. He had this Cult Hip British Artist Status. Then I was attracted to his poetry later on, as well as his paintings in terms of his fearlessness regarding experimenting and acknowledging his place as a subject filled with accidental inspiration rather than a contemporary “God” “Young British Artist”. Humility runs alongside "celebration of the present” in this interview. I guess he has a natural giddiness reigned in by himself with the awareness of a world that always wants more. The natural instinct is to reference and compare and put a person on a pedestal and put a price on his head, which he balks at.

I am at times pretty exhausted (in terms of digesting) from the numbers and varieties (sameness) of art that exists and am in agreement with Childish in terms of what he has to say regarding the common sense “art is just art (and not Art)” philosophy. What is this exhibition and why would it be worth going to as opposed to all the other spaces and places of art? While painting still holds this “slow” pace in a chaotic recyclable modern life, this exhibition for me (coming from Ireland and missing nature, living in the global city landscape) brings me back to a sense of calmness and (human) nature which is often missing in factory produced art work coming from the urban grid and grind. I was not so interested in the historical significance of the figures Childish painted in terms of the names and places. I was more interested in his ability to be selective. To stick to traditional forms and yet to do as he pleases.

 Billy Childish, man on an icy sea (version y), 2013, oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 274,5 cm  © Billy Childish; courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin / Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.

Norah Dineen: What is the most pertinent thing in your life right now?

Billy Childish: The most pertinent is harmony. Balance between the worlds. This isn’t always easy, but having strength for this life defines it. That balance is what gives space for duty. Painting duty and family duty. When the balance is there the whole thing flows and "does itself".

ND: Can you separate your life from your art?

BC: Yes, art happens in life. When I paint I am painting, when I cook I’m cooking, when I shit, I'm hopefully shitting.

People who think that art and life are the same are deluded. Naming things correctly – and acting within them correctly – might be an art in itself, but life and art don’t need to get confused.

That said, I don’t bother much with art. I make pictures and let the art aspect look after itself. It’s best not to worry around paintings like an old mother hen. Life wants to live itself; the painting wants to paint itself. I'm just there, along for the ride. Sunday afternoons I make five-foot paintings, Monday afternoons I make the nine-foot paintings, the rest of the week, I get on with life whilst the water tank refills. Life is life, art is merely art.

Billy Childish, man stood on ice holding a dead duck (Off Hoo Ness, River Medway 1963)(version z), 2012, oil and charcoal on linen, 274,5 x 183 cm  © Billy Childish; courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin/ Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.


ND: Does modernism mean anything to you today?

BC: There has only ever been, and will always only be, now. The movement of early modernism is a gift to all painters of sense. Its downside is that it has enabled all manner of fools to make pretend art, but life is essentially pretend anyway, and if god didn’t like it he wouldn’t allow it. So I suppose we just have to suck it up, though I often spit it out.

ND: How do you work today?

BC: I've covered this earlier, but essentially the more it seems that I'm in charge of the painting, the more the painting is in charge of me. This is true of all artists of worth, but not something they always notice, or are necessarily happy about.

ND: What keeps you working?

BC: I enjoy making pictures. I feel at ease playing in paint. My nature dictates this, so I am at ease. I am living my nature with obedience to god’s requirements (at my best).

Billy Childish, sea of galilee, night, 2012, oil and charcoal on linen, 183 x 244 cm  © Billy Childish;  courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin/ Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin.


ND: How do you feel about your upcoming exhibition in Berlin? 

BC: For someone who has no qualifications, was expelled from art school and told I would have to die to get recognition, it is a great big jam sandwich.

Really, I'm amazed the universe is up for it. But the universe always does its own thing: fireworks and the infinite heavens. So a show in Berlin for Billy Childish? The gods say, "Let him have it; it's only small beer anyway." And I say, “God be praised!”


Norah Dineen


ArtSlant would like to thank Billy Childish and Jan Salewski for their assistance in making this interview possible.

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