Interview: Billy Childish

December 18, 2013

PHOTOS BY DAVE WALKER ‘Naturally, I have no heroes. I am my heroes.’ Central St Martins drop-out and archaic anarchist Billy Childish has been deemed a seething, dyslexic, better looking, British Bukowski. He often carries the misfortune of being better known as the founder of art collective The Stuckists, a fortified enemy of the Tate […]


‘Naturally, I have no heroes. I am my heroes.’

Central St Martins drop-out and archaic anarchist Billy Childish has been deemed a seething, dyslexic, better looking, British Bukowski. He often carries the misfortune of being better known as the founder of art collective The Stuckists, a fortified enemy of the Tate and perhaps most frequently as Tracey Emin’s ex, after his name graced her infamous tent. Yet with a discography of 90 albums, 2’000 paintings and over 30 volumes of poetry, the naturally inclined rebel has become an icon in his own right.

The man who once called the Turner Prize an ‘ ongoing national joke’ gives a firm handshake and stands proudly in his moccasins, clothed in paint-splattered Khaki overalls amid a chaotic jumble of canvases and copious amounts of rags, pots, easels and sketchbooks.

Upon entering his studio, buried in the historic surrounds of Chatham Dockyard, the beret wearing polymath looked like he belonged to another era altogether. With his Edwardian moustache and period clothing it may be easy to mistake him as an archetypal poseur. However Childish authentically rejects most things deemed ‘modern’ not only on an aesthetic level but an ideological one as well.

Wielding a well worn paintbrush in front of a 9 ft blank canvas, he is a dying species. A classic vision of what we once imagined an artist to be.  Of course, our modern perception of how we imagine artists to be and what they do, has changed along with our conceptions of what art is itself.

In the past, art movements have typically been a reactionary precursor of revolution, whether political, economical, or merely to push the boundaries within its own sphere. Yet now a wave of artists are left hindered, confined or, at least, limited by what boundaries there are left, whilst enduring an economic crisis to boot. It is these ideological and financial constraints that have allowed marketing and the branding of art to be the movement our generation, and to Childish’s dissatisfaction, it is this publicity driven art world that has allowed conceptual art to flourish.

Back in 1999, Childish founded, or as he says, “I was asked”, to become part of The Stuckists, formed after Emin claimed his expressionist- influenced art was backward to the point of being ‘stuck stuck stuck’. The group championed pro-figurative painting whilst being vehemently opposed to ‘ego art’ and the rebirth of cocaine fueled conceptualism made popular by the likes of Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and other YBA’s.

In between drawing an outline on the freshly prepared canvas and gulping generous sips of tea, Childish speaks cynically, “What these people think is that because the universe isn’t solid, and is only apparently real, then anything can be anything, but on an important level it isn’t these things. Even if it is transitory.” “Materials are important because they give traction to allow us to walk and talk. To misname these objects because of your cleverness isn’t clever”.

He taps a chair next to him impatiently, “Wood is wood. To make a cabinet we need wood but that doesn’t mean wood is the ultimate existence, it means we’re interacting correctly with the world around us. It is important to discern what things are because then you don’t end up eating sawdust”.

It seems that the consumers and producers of today’s art have been devouring said sawdust with a ferocious appetite. Whilst he has a point that existing materials should be identified by definition, is it possible for us to define art which, in itself, is subjective rather than objective?

“Art to me is something to do with the hand, it comes through the person and manifests itself on a canvas or in a sculptural piece, it is the other world manifesting in this world, the invisible becoming visible. That’s why a ready-made object isn’t art. I don’t think that makes it necessarily bad, it just makes it not what it says it is. Du champ said it was anti-art, and I think it’s a good idea, but it’s no good if anti-art becomes art because it’s like a swear word becoming acceptable- and what’s the use of that, it means you devalue the language”

Childish’s problem is not with conceptual art in its entirety, but with things not being what they claim to be. He emphasizes that in order to escape art’s crisis, we need to define what things are and what is real, on an almost primitive level. He proclaims that the art world creates confusion by misting the air with elitism. “There are people who really like confusing people because they feel that they can gain some power from it”. “I was in The Stuckists because I thought there would be some sort of stand for painting against this conceptual dogma.”

Yet, still feeling unhappy and misunderstood, he left The Stuckists in 2001, and still winces at being associated with them today. To Childish, who dismisses almost any label that has been thrust upon him in the past, The Stuckists were just as bad as Saatchi and the Tate. Despite representing the opposition, they were still defined by the art institutions that they pitched themselves against. This is what makes Childish so different. He considers himself outside of this sphere altogether. “I don’t have any agenda in my work. There’s no teaching and nothing that I’m trying to achieve. My agenda is doing it. There’s nothing separate from doing it. I’m not trying to be famous. I’m not trying to be good at making pictures. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m not interested in what people think about me”.

His Chatham twang echoes through the studio, ‘I don’t try and get exhibitions at the Tate, and the Stuckists do”. He looks on confidently at his painting. ‘My ambition is bigger than having an exhibition at the Tate my ambition is to fulfill my nature and not be dictated to’.

It is this matter of fact, blunt way of talking that has likened him to be a bit like Marmite, by many. His reluctance to conform could have hindered his earlier chances of success, yet his stubbornness in such a fickle industry is admirable.  “I’ve got what they want and one day they’ll admit that they want it, they do that with all proper artists’.

In regards to his career, Childish has been biding his time. He briefly worked as an apprentice in Chatham Dockyards at the age of 16 before purposefully smashing his hand with a 3lb club hammer, declaring he’d never work again. He has avoided full time work all his life, dedicating his time to painting, writing and making music, and it is only in recent years that he has become more well known, ‘funnily more in America than England’ he muses.

Despite having a seemingly indifferent outlook, it is this relentless faith in himself, and confident attitude that has been crucial to his success.  ‘I never felt that someone has got something that I haven’t got. The things I admire and like. I don’t feel less than..I don’t think I’m less than Van Gough and I don’t think I’m more than Van Gough.’ He is straight forward and doesn’t believe that art needs excessive explanation. To him it is more of a natural compulsion. He says, ‘I’m not interested in paintings, I’m interested in painting”.

He tears up rags to work the canvas as he continues.  ‘”Some people are into that crap because they’re into the trip and that is of dubious worth,  because it doesn’t help with the evolution of the Spirit. It’s important not to get involved in exoticism. People do that ‘cause they want to be special, because they think they’re not.” He doesn’t compare himself to others or believe in being confined by labels, politically, artistically or musically. As he doesn’t bend over for capitalism, it’s easy to misinterpret Childish as a fanatical leftist. However he says ‘I’m grateful my art is commodified’, in fact when Marxism is mentioned he snorts “Any Marxists that I’ve ever met are a fucking pain in the arse, tedious, totalitarian people!”

He isn’t interested in manipulating a system he doesn’t identify with. However he is willing to accept the system in order to give himself more freedom outside of it. “Some people will try and control that environment to be how they need it to be, they are worried and want it to be a certain way. They’re trying to move the universe in the direction they want it to.” But he prefers to take a more ‘simplistic approach’, influenced by his interest in religious philosophy and nature. Instead of trying to change something that already exists, he prefers to ‘create an environment where the things have a chance to grow’. ‘All action is perceived by intention. If you are putting the right thing out, then you are creating an environment that good can come back to, like a seed.’

By setting up his own independent publishing house, record label, and art studio he has been able to have full control of his creative output. Refraining from investing in PR, his manager Steve chortles that such things are ‘boring’ and of little interest to them. Childish relies on word of mouth and well earned recognition. His ‘commodities’ are sold at a reasonable price, but only to those who seek it. He adds the last few strokes to his painting, stands back and studies it. An expressionist’s wet dream of a hooded figure standing dominantly in a wooden fisherman’s boat, completed in the duration of our interview.

The deep and philosophical may lie as contradictive to the blunt and simple, yet this is something Childish represents.  Billy may be talking from a bygone age, but is also a somewhat of a paradox. He claims to stand against establishment names such as Saatchi and other promoters of contemporary art, or anti art, yet he is still present in the commercial mix. There seems to be enough room in the art world for Billy and Tracy and Damien, but who of these is the most honest? Is it more important to be concerned about the origins of art rather than the selling of it? One thing is for sure, after meeting him it is clear that he is passionate about his art. For him it is a necessity, a compulsion and maybe, in a cliché kind of way, it is this that makes his art real.

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