“The natural world is a vibrating mystery”: Billy Childish with Jessica Holmes
Punk icon Billy Childish is an unrelenting polymath. Since the 1970s he has recorded over 100 albums, published more than 50 volumes of poetry and fiction, and appeared in a wide variety of films. However, his earliest and primary preoccupation has always been painting. On the occasion of the opening of his current exhibition “flowers, nudes, and birch trees: New Paintings 2015,” at Lehmann Maupin in New York, I sat down to speak with him about tradition, nature, and why art is “pornography and comfort food for the spiritually inept.”
JESSICA HOLMES: Can you tell me something about the body of work in this show? Is there anything viewers might find surprising?
BILLY CHILDISH: The paintings have been made over the last six months, so they’re very current. They are of subjects that have presented themselves and that I’ve worked through, or am still working through. People tend to have quite a lot of expectation, based on whether they are familiar with an artist or if they have ideas based on various misinformations that are available. Some people are surprised that I would work with the nudes. I painted nudes a great deal in the 1980s and 1990s and I haven’t painted them for the last five years or so — I think surprises are all down to expectations and knowledge.
I’d say that your paintings are deceptive because at first glance they are very straightforward, but there is great mystery once you really start looking. You frequently paint the natural world.
The natural world is a vibrating mystery of continual becoming and unbecoming. Within my paintings the bits that interest me are the abstracted parts. If I went round these pictures I’d say, “I like that bit.” It’s a love, an expression of my love of nature and an intense relationship with matter — vibrating, distorting matter, which is timeless and unable to be fixed in time.
I was going to ask you, since your work is so personal, how you feel when it’s released into the world, but maybe this is something that allows you to let it go.
My relationship with the art is making the picture and once that’s done, I don’t have much of a relationship afterwards. I’m not necessarily happy with my paintings when they’re finished. People hear my disregard for art and artists and they think I’m very satisfied with what I do. Not necessarily.
Does an idea ever morph into something else? Do you ever think you are going to make a painting and it becomes a poem, for example?
No, I know what I’m doing when I’m doing it. I paint on particular days of the week and I write poems in my notebook. I was in a British art show in the 1990s and they had some poems of mine painted on a wall, which is not something I would do, or which I considered to be art. And I said, “Well, I know what they are. They’re poems written on a wall.” I don’t see breaking down in categories as a freedom, I see it more as nonsense. There is nothing wrong with a poem being a poem. It doesn’t need to become a painting. I like all of my courses separate, so I don’t put my custard in with the roast beef. Not because I don’t like custard or I don’t like roast beef but because I do like custard and I do like roast beef.
Do you prefer painting to the other media?
Yes, it’s my natural ground. I’ve got works existing from when I was four or five, and I painted a great deal starting from when I was 12. I couldn’t really read and write until I was 14 [because of undiagnosed dyslexia], and I wasn’t involved with music until I was 17. Of all the other things, painting is the one where I don’t have those on/off buttons. I paint every Monday and Sunday, so I know what I am meant to be doing when I’m doing it. I had to discipline myself after I was expelled from art school, which fits my nature quite nicely. Going to art school doesn’t suit creative types.
Since you brought up your art school experience, which from what I understand was terrible, what would you say to somebody thinking of going to art school today, when there is so much emphasis placed on receiving an MFA?
When I went to art school, it wasn’t like the pressure now. Art schools these days seem to be there to try and create artists quickly, whereas I think an art school’s job is to give people stuff for their tool kit. I see it as much more craft-based or space-based. You’ve got to have quite a lot of self-will not to be run all over, or have them get rid of your real primal interests and send you on the course to being an Identi-Kit conceptual artist. What you need are the tools to actualize your vision. I’d say it might be better to be wary, ask questions, maybe not be like I was, and rather keep a bit of a low profile. I just fought with them.
What were some of the things you were made to do at St. Martin’s?
I had not been taught the type of obedience that they thought they should receive from someone as lowly as a student. I was required to take history of art and I found the person who taught it dull. You had to say things about canvas, or about art, using “art speak.” I told them I wouldn’t go, and they said I could sleep in that class if I wanted to, but I must attend it. I also refused to paint pictures at the college; I painted at home instead. I told them I didn’t want to become contaminated. I got into a lot trouble for writing what they called obscene poetry. I was talented and charismatic, which caused me more problems than if I hadn’t been. I was a good target.
You’ve stuck remarkably with your vision. How has that been beneficial, and how has it hindered you?
I think it’s in line with my nature, and it’s not an effort. I paint the pictures and, after the event, find out what psychological drive might be in there, which is far more interesting than having a prescriptive one. I just let it happen and then people can work out what fruitcake I am afterwards.
Or not! Thank you!
The thing is, there’s not many great thinkers in art. You have a few people like Picasso who always said smart stuff but you’re not going to get much intellectual stimulation from talking to artists. You can see how popular that opinion will make me! A curator asked me yesterday what I thought art was about, and I came up with a quote, and we wrote it down because I got the giggles. It was, “art is pornography and comfort food for the spiritually inept.” That doesn’t mean that’s true; that was yesterday’s definition!
Right! And what did she say?
She was in stitches!
Over the years you’ve used different names and pseudonyms. Do they represent different personalities?
In 1977, when I was 17, I was a punk rocker. I got the moniker Billy Childish from a friend of mine, which I used in bands. I didn’t like using that name in other areas so I always painted — and still paint — under my family name, William Hamper. When I was doing early exhibitions in German cooperatives, they knew I played music as Billy Childish, and it was forced onto me as a painter. Billy Childish has never made any paintings. Well, very rarely. When I was making films, I would use William Loveday. I was trying to compartmentalize so that I couldn’t be accused of trading off Billy Childish, a musician who now paints. It was self-preservation to stop people from categorizing me, but it didn’t work at all.
I would love to hear you talk about your philosophy of Radical Traditionalism.
With Radical Tradition what I was trying to get across is that tradition, which I really like, is freeing because it is something you don’t have to invent. There’s this literal relationship with a history of painting, which used to be recognized and respected by artists as obvious.
It’s a connection with antiquity in a way, right?
Yes. Nothing is as dated as the contemporary. Modern people want to lift the ego, but the ego is a block to creativity. Tradition is a way of subjugating the ego and allowing the thing to flow. Great artists, like Van Gogh for instance, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Van Gogh says whom he loves, and you can see whom he loves in his paintings. There’s no desperation for authorship. Really great art has got a timeless quality and it’s not narrow. You look at Van Gogh’s work, it looks contemporary, and it doesn’t look like it’s made in a mechanized age, either. When you are trying to be contemporary or relevant, to show us who we are, it’s like a rupture in time whereas if you give yourself to a tradition you dissolve time. With my music, we used to be pawned off as revivalists in the 1980s for playing guitar music and rock-‘n’-roll. Now people listen and say, “Your music doesn’t sound like any time at all.” That is what you want, for that thing to have a continued, timeless presence.
It’s got a life force.
Yeah. There’s still fight to it.