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  • Billy Childish: “I’m the one on the true path”


Billy Childish: “I’m the one on the true path”

Painter, musician and writer Billy Childish on his new exhibition, 'Paintings from Fossilised Cretaceous Seams' at Berlin's neugerriemschneider gallery.

Photo: Courtesy of Billy Childish and neugerriemschneider

Renowned for his raw, expressive, and unfiltered contributions to painting, music and poetry, Billy Childish is an artist of many talents. Whichever medium he turns his hands to is characterised by intensity and, at times, brutal honesty.

After being expelled from art school, he dated contemporary artist Tracey Emin, who featured him prominently in her work ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’. In 1996, he released his autobiography, My Fault, which documented in vivid prose the harrowing events of his childhood. For decades, Childish has been a driving force behind numerous bands, including Thee Headcoats and The Buff Medways, embracing a DIY ethic that underscores his punk rock roots.

Fiercely independent, he eschews conventional success, embracing a philosophy of amateurism that celebrates authenticity over commercialism. Despite the fact that he’s a legend of the underground scene, in recent years, he has become increasingly recognised for his unique and idiosyncratic contributions across the arts.

The landscape paintings you’ve made for your new exhibition are charged with a visionary intensity yet have a serene quality…

The paintings really are dreamscapes. And if you really go into it, our stories and our lives are pretty much dreams as well! But trying to get how ethereal and poetic the world is not so easy to unlock if you’re negotiating the reality you’re in. Because it isn’t that. It’s just this weird free-flow thing that’s going on. And, of course, people want things nailed down and explained and copper-bottomed and guaranteed.

The colours in the paintings such as ‘Orion and the Moon’ are almost hallucinogenic, with currents of greens and blues. Are you looking to inject the magic and spirituality of the natural world into the work?

My whole interest is in escaping identity, not claiming one.

I don’t have any interest in injecting anything into anything. I like making pictures, and I don’t have any remit. It’s a very simple process. If something interests me, I paint it or want to be part of it. I’m just joining myself with things I like, just like a kid drawing dinosaurs. You can interpret them as having psychological depth, but I don’t try to steer anyone’s view of anything. There’s no planning. They’re finished in about two or three hours, with no pre-thought and with no understanding of how they’re gonna turn out.

So, it’s completely intuitive…

I go to the studio, and I think, what should I paint? Yesterday I was walking in the woods with the dog, and we saw the moon, and I pointed out to my kid where Orion is, and then I put Orion in the landscape. But when I’ve done a painting, I don’t like people to know who or what they’re about. I don’t like being too prescriptive, it’s insulting to the viewer.

You collect these visions and ideas, and then you come back to your studio and paint them?

I use photographs a lot. I say to the kids, “I’ve got no imagination, so it’s good to do copying but without there being any actual element of copying.” Because it’s very difficult to copy anything. You can’t even copy yourself. If people are really skilled, their painting ends up looking like the photo, and then they’re in real trouble. Because then they stay on the surface, whereas everything’s in movement and vibration.

The whole of creation is just energy manifested in different shapes and forms. Van Gogh said: You must look above to see the invisible. And for me, it’s about being aligned with nature’s force and being aligned with your own nature. This is why I don’t fit in with the music world or the art world because I’m a creative type, and a conservative world doesn’t like creative types. We create waves and cause disharmony.

Would you say you’re an outsider?

I’d say I’m an insider. The others are outsiders, because I’m the one on the true path.

You once famously referred to yourself as a “radical traditionalist”…

That’s just a way of trying to explain myself to people. There’s a torch that’s passed through the ages, and you’re just passing on thought or energy from real people and making it available to the next real people. You might get applause, or you might get pushed off the cliff, who knows? Because none of them know what they’re looking at anyway.

Could that attitude stymy originality or innovation?

That is originality! Originality isn’t original; originality is origin. You’ve got to have ground. The spiritual path is not heaven or earth, it is not the ethereal realm and not the material realm – it’s the union of them.

Is that what you want to channel through your work?

You’ve got to be authentic rather than original. And authenticity is original! If Jimi Hendrix is taking apart Muddy Waters, you say it’s an original take on Muddy Waters. But really, it’s authentic because he is steeped in the history and tradition of that music. His is an authentic engagement because of his genuine love and regard for the tradition.

Would you say that puts you at odds with the art world?

In modern art, originality usually means gimmicks. And the way to do something original is to call something art that hasn’t ever been called art before – which is sarcastic and of no value. Of course, it was really hilarious when Kurt Schwitters and the early Dadaists did it, who I really enjoy. But they weren’t doing it to line their bank accounts. They were doing it to expose pomposity and ridiculousness of the art world and in reaction to the world that had just gone through the cataclysm of World War I.

Do you get offended by criticism?

The way to do something original is to call something art that hasn’t ever been called art before.

Depends on if it’s funny or not. I get offended by inaccuracy. I like it if it’s rude in a funny way. I prefer accurate dismissal rather than inaccurate praise! If someone’s right about something I can enjoy a good insult and if it’s witty or clever. A lot of my criticism was negative because I was a painter, which is quite facile.

Because for 20 or 30 years, painting was seen as idiotic [thing] and a waste of time, and painters were not cool. So, I spent most of my life not being cool. Same with music. I remember being reviewed on the basis that we weren’t The Smiths. But we weren’t trying to be The Smiths. There’s so much nepotism in journalism. We didn’t have agents or people doing press, so normally the journalists can’t be bothered to write anything new; they just copy and paste what I’ve written about one of my bands.

Is it true you smashed your own hand when you were young, so you didn’t have to be a stonemason anymore?

It’s slightly more complicated, but I did damage my own hand, and I did do it on purpose. Because the last thing I wanted to be was to have a job – to be a stonemason, an artist, a poet. My whole interest is in escaping identity, not claiming one. Because, you know, you’re not any of these things. We’re multifaceted. Identity is so relative. Being a son, a father, a husband, a brother, an older brother, a younger brother, a painter, a pedestrian, cyclist, a musician, tone deaf. You can’t nail any of these things down, so why bother claiming any of them? We appear to be a couple of things, and then, after our short time on earth, we won’t be those either.

You were famously expelled from art school. Are you surprised you’ve become a successful artist?

I was expelled a couple of times from [Central] Saint Martins [in London] for not being very obedient and writing obscene poetry. It felt like I made plenty of enemies at art school. I mean, the only friend I had there is the now very successful Pete Doig, but he was far more obedient than me. After I was expelled, I met Tracey [Emin], who was a student down here in Medway, where I live, and we were a couple for a few years. Tracey is much more obliging to people than I am. She went to Royal College and started doing art speak and everything, which I always refuse to do.

Billy Childish. Photo: Rikard Osterlund

What do you mean by “art speak”?

At art school, they want you to talk about your art, so you become part of the club; speaking about it as though dealing with the notions of things. I am mocking it even now. My networking in the art world is, I don’t turn up. Because if I turn up, I’ll upset somebody because I don’t agree.

Disagree with what?

The whole vomitus notion of it. I don’t think art is anything that they think it is. I think it’s liked for all the wrong reasons and dismissed for all the wrong reasons. But I’m an anomaly.

You have a singular perspective…

I don’t see things from being a paid-up member, and that goes for writing, music and poetry. Because I’m not affiliated. I don’t go to the parties, and I don’t say what’s correct. That’s caused me a lot of problems. The art world is inherently conservative because it’s primarily driven by markets.

Yet your star is in the ascendant; you have a big show in China and increasing recognition across Europe…

And it is happening because of Europe. First, I was accepted in Germany, then America, China, Korea – but not in England.

Why do you think that is?

You’ve got to be authentic rather than original.

I’ve never seen myself as an English person, that’s another club I won’t join. Even though my German friends think I’m the most English person they’ve ever met. They tell me that they can spot I’m an Englishman from half a mile off. I have an English gallery and a New York one but my primary gallery now is Neugerriemschneider. The Germans don’t mind asking me my opinion and getting my answers. I get into so much trouble from famous people who get upset when I say I don’t like their stuff.

That includes Jack White from The White Stripes, who is a big fan of your music…

He wasn’t so famous when I met him. But he was a fan of ours, and he asked if I’d go on the Letterman Show with him, but I said it depends on what we would be doing. And then he found out that I didn’t like their music much, even though he really liked mine.

Is it true Kurt Cobain was a fan?

Apparently, he had some records. We were signed to the Nirvana label, Sub Pop Records, very early on, and a lot of people were fans of stuff we’d done in the 70s and 80s.

Will you be touring again anytime soon?

We don’t play live that often. Although I just recorded five albums in two months, which will all be released with four or five different groups. The trouble is we use such weird old gear and equipment which can be hard to organise.

To Ease My Troubled Mind: The Authorised Unauthorised History of Billy Childish by Ted Kessler is about to be released. What are your feelings about that?

Trepidation, really, because I don’t want to know what’s in it. I told Ted that I wouldn’t read it. There’s a real downside to biographies; they have real evil in them because people think they know you. I wrote this poem this morning about it and we’re going to print it up for the Berlin show.

It is called ‘Zero’. [Quotes his poetry] “nothing / it / seams to me / is / more hatefull than fame / for / this reason / i refuse / to be / a pet artist / a pet musician / pet poet / or / me”. You see, the thing is, I’m too lumpy. And I’ve got my own sense of humour. And you know, I think if you can’t mock something, I’m not interested in it. (Laughs) Talk about art speak and nonsense!

  • neugerriemschneider, Linienstr. 155, Mitte, Paintings from Fossilised Cretaceous Seams, through Aug 17.