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26 Questions for Artist, Poet, and Musician Billy Childish - ARTINFO
books & records:
Poet, painter, singer, dreamer: Billy Childish
Praised by Peter Doig and 'copied' by Tracey Emin, Britain's biggest art enigma Billy Childish talks to Stuart Jeffries about his art, punk music and the joys of amateurism
Billy Childish (born Steven John Hamper, 1 December 1959) is an English artist, painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist. He is known for his explicit and prolific work - he has detailed his love life and childhood sexual abuse, notably in his early poetry and the novels My Fault (1996), Notebooks of a Naked Youth (1997), Sex Crimes of the Futcher (2004) - The Idiocy of Idears (2007), and in several of his songs, notably in the instrumental Peodaphile, Clawfist Records (1992) (featuring a photograph of the man who sexually abused him on the front cover), and Every Bit of Me, Damaged Goods Records, (1993). From 1981 till 1985 Childish had a relationship with artist Tracey Emin and has also been associated with another British artist Stella Vine.
He is a consistent advocate for amateurism and free emotional expression and was a co-founder of the Stuckism art movement with Charles Thomson in 1999, which he left in 2001. Since then a new evaluation of Childish's standing in the art world has been under way, culminating with the publication of a critical study of Childish's working practice by the artist and writer Neal Brown, with an introduction by Peter Doig, which describes Childish as "one of the most outstanding, and often misunderstood, figures on the British art scene".
Billy Childish was born, lives and works in Chatham, Kent, England. Although he had an early and extremely close association with many of the artists who became known as "YBA" artists he has resolutely asserted his independent status. He was sexually abused when he was aged nine by a male family friend: "We were on holiday. I had to share a bed with him. It happened for several nights, then I refused to go near him. I didn't tell anyone." He left secondary school at 16, an undiagnosed dyslexic. Refused an interview at the local art college, he entered Chatham Dockyard, Kent, as an apprentice stonemason. During the next six months (the artist’s only prolonged period of conventional employment), he produced some 600 drawings in "the tea huts of hell". On the basis of this work he was accepted into St Martin’s School of Art, where he was friends with the artist Peter Doig, to study painting. However, his acceptance was short-lived and he was expelled in 1982 before completing the course. He then lived on the dole for 15 years. In 2006 Childish turned down the offer to appear on Channel 4's Celebrity Big Brother UK. Childish has practised Yoga and meditation since the early 1990s.
As a prospective student lacking the necessary entry qualifications, Childish was accepted into art school four times on the strength of his paintings and drawings. Childish studied foundation at Medway College Design in 1977-78. And was then accepted onto the painting department of St Martins School of Art in 1978, before quitting a month later. He was re-accepted at St Martins in 1980, but was expelled in 1982 for refusing to paint in the art school and other unruly behaviour. At St Martins Childish became friends with Peter Doig with whom he shared an appreciation of Munch, Van Gogh and blues music. Doig later co-curated Childish's first London show at the Cubit Street Gallery. In the early/mid 1980s Childish was a "major influence" on the artist Tracey Emin, who he met after his expulsion from St Martins when she was a fashion student at Medway College of Design. Childish has been cited as the influence for Emin's later confessional art. Childish paints in a personal style, which parallels his passion for the elemental in both writing and music. He has exhibited extensively since the 1980s and was featured in the British Art Show in 2000. Since 2002 Childish has been represented by the L-13 Gallery in London, along with Jamie Reid and James Cauty (with whom sometimes collaborates). In 1996 Childish painted "The Drinker", influenced by Hans Fallada's novel of the same title. Childish has cited Fallada as a major influence on his own prose work, notably in the novel "Sex Crimes of the Futcher. In 2008 Childish commenced a series of paintings based on the life and death of the Swiss author Robert Walser, whom Childish has also cited as an influence on his prose work. In 2008 Childish made several paintings of the steam paddle tug John H Amos which was moored on a pontoon at Rochester. In 2010 a major exhibition of Childish's recent paintings, writing and music was held at The ICA London, with a concurrent painting show running at White Columns Gallary in NY.
In 2008 Childish formed the "non organisation" The British Art Resistance, and held an exhibition under the title Hero of The British Art Resistance at The Aquarium L-13 gallery in London: A collection of paintings, books, records, pamphlets, poems, prints, letters, film, photographs made in 2008.
In 1999 Childish and Thomson co-founded the Stuckist art movement. Thomson coined the group name from Childish's Poem for a Pissed Off Wife (Big Hart and Balls 1994), where he had recorded Emin's remark to him:
Your paintings are stuck, you are stuck! - Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!"
The group was strongly pro-figurative painting and anti-conceptual art. Childish wrote a number of manifestos with Thomson, the first of which contained the statement:
Artists who don't paint aren't artists.
The Stuckists soon achieved considerable press coverage, fueled by Emin's nomination for the Turner Prize. They then announced the inauguration of a cultural period of Remodernism to bring back spiritual values into art, culture and society. The formation of The Stuckists directly led to Emin severing her 14-year friendship with Childish in 1999.
Childish has said: "The Stuckist art group was formed in 1999 at the instigation of Charles Thomson, the title of the group being taken from a poem of mine written and published in 1994. I disagreed with the way Charles presented the group, particularly in the media. For these reasons I left the Stuckists in 2001. I never attended any Stuckist demonstrations and my work was not shown in the large Stuckist exhibition held in the Walker Art Gallery in 2004."
British artist Stella Vine, who was a member of the Stuckists for a short time in 2001, first joined the group having developed a "crush" on Billy Childish while attending his music events. In June 2000, Vine went to a talk given by Childish and fellow Stuckist co-founder Charles Thomson on Stuckism and Remodernism, promoted by the Institute of Ideas at the Salon des Arts, Kensington. Vine formed The Unstuckists one month after joining, and has since said she did not agree with Stuckism's principles, and described them as bullies.
As a young man, Childish was highly influenced by Dada, and the work of Kurt Schwitters in particular. Childish has a Kurt Schwitters poem tatooed on his left buttock and made a short film on Schwitters's life, titled The Man with Wheels, (1980, directed by Eugean Doyan). In his poetry, Childish mentions that he once had a bank account under the name of Kurt Schwitters. As to what is now termed conceptual art, Childish has said "I respect the right of detractors and champions alike as we live in a democracy."
press & media:
an interview for SF Weekly
One of Billy's manifestos says that art should help us become adults. This is a big obsession, psychologically, with people my age (30s) -- what it means to become an adult, how you go about it without becoming just a consumer. So I wonder, how does art help us become adults?
Well art may as well be of some use, at least to the person whose doing it. When we engage with art openly it helps us meet our limitations and humaneness and there by get to know ourselves and like ourselves, along with all our faults and shortcomings. Art is an outlet for the subconscious, which by definition desires to become conscious, painting relieves some of those pressure of hell and we can start being a little more honest and stop trying to impress everyone all the time, perhaps even stop bothering trying to impress ourselves. Of course this doesn't work if we use art as just another commodity or fashion accessory but real art can shine light and beauty on our ugliness.
Billy's philosophy about art addresses a lot of the things people get hung up on in the art world, including commercialism and authenticity. People talk endlessly about "selling out," etc, but really Billy's approach seems so simple: You make art not for public recognition, but for self-discovery. It's such a pure approach. I wonder how he feels about the public recognition that has inevitably come along with his success, though, however modest he might consider that success?
People get confused about originality and authenticity. Striving for originality is a very limiting process which actually cuts off the natural creative flow of life. Whereas engaging authentically with what we have in front of us - be it some summer trees or a catastrophe - is liberating and requires no effort or pretence. An added bonus to being authentic is that we begin to express our originality naturally and can relate to each other on a less flimsy level. In short we start to achieve some genuine communication with ourselves and fellow human beings. I would go as far as to say that we can only be original if we are at first being authentic. One of the muddy issues is that art critics and artists often confuse gimmick for originality and vulgarity for authenticity.
Artist are as open to temptation as the rest of the human race - more so if they fancy themselves as special - and as a society we like to encourage each others lower instincts with fantasies about sex, power, gambling and some vaguely implied immortality. Primarily this is to gain our complicity - so we're all in the same camp - then nick all our cash. The trouble is, whilst we're out nicking to add to our own stash, some person is sneaking in round the back to nick from our unguarded stash.
In our society art and music are pretty much seen as just another commodity only with added status points. We pretend it's all very special but really our artist desperately want to be pop stars and our pop stars desperately want to have the kudos of calling themselves artists or poets, whilst simultaneously advertising cars and supplying the soundtracks in shopping malls. At its worst art is just another means of fleecing ourselves.
I welcome recognition for genuine achievement, but am not so sold on striving to achieve recognition. The path is the goal because the only good thing about painting is painting and prise and criticism are often as poisonous as each other. Celebrity is fine if it is celebrating something that rises to our consciousness. Unfortunately our societies obsessions with sex and fame often means that we promote the tawdry and the dull over hard work and decency.
As to my own successes, some collectors are now picking up on what ive been up too these past 30 years, maybe because they figure that they may as well have at least one piece of art in their collection that has been made by someone who actually meant it, or they want me in their stamp collection because it's become impossible to pretend any longer that I don't exist.
Honesty in the art world is such a rare thing. Why does the market try to co-opt art so relentlessly, and how does an artist deal with this pressure? How does Billy deal with it?
Humans are pretty insatiable beasts and need to own every inch of real estate, including each others harts and minds. The market claims art as well because unless art is contained art mite exposes the markets crassness. Of course, we are the market and we are collectively fearful of the unconscious and have a vested interest: fear - to keep each other trussed up.
The way to avoid the pressure is too not hunger too strongly for what the market promises us if we trade our hart and souls for it. My first advise would be: don't let yourself be ruled by sex and money. The only way someone 'has you' is if you want what they've got. I don't mind being rich but I don't get on my knees for it or ruin my sanity over it. I believe that life is a spiritual journey on which we learn and grow, rather than an 'eat all you can' buffet where we stuff ourselves till we puke.
This makes me think about the fact that Billy continues to call himself an "amateur." I love that he's adopted that term, because it's so far away from the art world's obnoxious cult of genius. What's the appeal of that term to Billy? Does using it allow for more freedom? More honesty?
By designating myself as an amateur it means that I'm free to engage with the world lightly and with a sense of fun. It loosens up my own expectations and the expectations of others. Besides, to be an amateur is more realistic, less bloated less pompous, and recognises the truth that we are all just human beings who do things, not professional artists, musicians and writers - who need to prove that are smarter than everyone else and there by deserve reverence. Basically, if some one identifies themselves by what they do then they are deluded. I've heard a number of conceptual artist proclaim 'whatever they do is art because they are artists' - on this basis I suggest that they belong in the mad house - if you follow the same logic it follows that everything a trash man touches is trash because he is a trash man. The bottom line is that the amateur does what he does through love, the professional because he has to win , and to pay the mortgage,