by JS

Contemporary art and its consumers are so heavily dependent upon and seduced by “the idea” that it seems truth and authenticity have all but lost their value. Artists are shoe-horning pretentious, forced and unnecessary concepts into their work, and it is eagerly swallowed down by the art world. The art object is almost secondary to what it represents. This is never the case with Billy Childish.


Billy Childish is a true Romantic. Rowing against the mainstream tide like a postmodern curio, Childish has spent his life re-enacting the character of a troubled and isolated Modern artist, demonstrating, with effortless prowess, the poetic inclinations that have secured him firmly into cult status.


Capturing the much-loved aesthetic of the German Expressionists, Childish both exploits and encouragingly shares viewers’ enthusiasm, much like his excellence in utilising the 1960s Garage sound within his music. What makes Billy Childish unique is that he glides beyond just having obsessions and interests; Billy Childish lives them, and by extension, he lives his art.


Woodcuts and paintings are the main focuses of Childish’s artistic practice. It would be wrong to claim all of his works are masterpieces; many critics have claimed over the years that Childish would be wise to stick to his already successful music rather than art. However, the skill and honesty within his later paintings is striking and, frankly, undeniable.


In recent years, Billy Childish has attracted new acclaim in the art world. A cynical view could suggest this acclaim increases the latter’s cult status by mere association. Being welcomed into the art world machine means success, but for an alternative artist, it also means restraint – death by acceptance, if you will. There’s no more threat to trends or the spinners of the art money wheel if the wild card is in the dominant hand.


A retrospective held at ICA, London in 2008 included paintings of wanderers in nature, inspired by the artist’s fascination with an image of author Robert Walser lying dead in the snow after suffering a heart-attack whilst walking. These paintings, such as “Son of Art” (2008) invoke references to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818). Painted with such raw and brutal lines, we are witness to, and reminded of, the expressionist brush-mark; an isolated movement by the artist’s brush being an end to expression in itself. The portraits depict a “universal man”, solitary, in amongst an abstract and harsh wilderness. There is a striking honesty within his paintings that creates an immediate, humanist connection. Perhaps, like so many of his endeavours, what we are confronted with is the underpinning autobiographical strand that is so important for Childish – he is not only an artist, but also a conveyor of feeling.


Childish’s work is not new or wonderfully original (influences aren’t exactly swept under the carpet or hidden), but it does present a difference and individuality within the context of now. Like the Musée d’Orsay breaking up a Hirst blockbuster at Tate Modern, Billy Childish’s art is never cold, cynical or clinical: it is rich, emotive and beautifully alive.


What we could be seeing with Childish’s rising popularity is the yearning for the return of the artist as a hero; a Romantic thinker and dreamer on the edges of society – a true individual. But maybe more importantly, what Billy Childish offers is salvation: a slow shift from the cold, grey, ironic art that looms in galleries like a sarcastic conglomerate tower-block, and a warm return to feeling and expression.


Son of Art, Oil on canvas, 2008

Billy Childish