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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Billy Childish

My favorite shot of Billy Childish (he's the one on the left).
Billy Childish, woodcut self-portrait.
If ever there was a difficult artist upon whom to "get a handle," it would be Billy Childish. The reason is simple, he's an artist in the broadest sense of the word. Born Steven John Hamper in 1959 (making him 53 at the moment), Billy Childish is a product of Chatham, Kent, England, where he still lives today. I suppose we should start by looking at Billy Childish as a painter, but first we need to look at Childish the child. His father was a commercial artist, also a drug-smuggling drunk. He was emotionally abused by his father, mother, and brother, while being sexual abused at the age of nine by another family member. He survived by sheer force of personality and will. As a teenager, he took up painting. He quit high school at the age of sixteen, an undiagnosed dyslexic. He had the talent to get into art school, but not the temperament to endure it. He spent a year learning the basics at Medway College of Design. On the basis of an outstanding portfolio, he was accepted at Saint Martin's School of Art. He lasted there exactly one month. Two years later, he was back, older and wiser. Two years later he was expelled for refusing to paint in their college studio (and other unspecified offenses). In short, Billy Childish was a malcontent, seemingly at war with all the rest of the world around him. The next fifteen years he spent "on the dole" (welfare, to American readers), during which time he wrote poetry, composed music, and painted paintings no one but he, himself, understood.

One of Billy's more recent musical groups.
Billy Childish may be better known in Britain for his music than his painting. Like his painting, his music runs against the grain. Generically you would term it hard rock. He writes it, performs it (he's an excellent guitarist) and produces it having organized, then disorganized a string of what we Yanks would call "garage bands." Perhaps more than anything else, he seems to enjoy naming them with groups like TV21 (later renamed the Pop Rivets), The Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, The Del Monas, then Thee Headcoats, and later the outrageous Wild Billy Childish & The Friends of the Buff Medways Fanciers Association. One critic pointed out that as soon as a Childish band threatens to become famous, Billy promptly disbands it. It's not that Billy dislikes fame, he's simply apathetic to it. That tends to make him an anomaly in both the music and the art worlds.

Man Seated (Oyster Catchers, Thames Estuary 1932)2012, Billy Childish, from his show,
"Paintings that Changed the World Like Digging in the Gutter with a Broken Lolly Stick."
Paedophile album cover, 1992
The adult life story of Billy Childish is as bumpy, twisting, and disheveled as his childhood. In the 1990s, Billy went public with his sexual abuse as a child through his instrumental album Paedophile along with Thee Headcoats (his band at the time). On the front cover he placed a photo of his abuser. Later he probed still deeper into his early life with three novels, My Fault (1996), Notebooks of a Naked Youth (1997), and Sex Crimes of the Futcher (2004). Reading down the list of more than 150 Billy Childish albums is as much fun as perusing the list of the bands which performed them. I especially like his title for a 1987 album, Don't Give Any Dinner to Henry Chinaski, though his next two albums, Which Dead Donkey, Daddy? and Laughing Gravy seem equally intriguing. All three were done with different bands he organized that one year alone. His more than fifty books of poetry bear equally creative titles.

The Real Turner Prize Show, 2000, the only photo of the entire Stuckist group.
(Billy Childish is at far right).
In 1999 Billy Childish joined with Charles Thomson to form the Stuckist movement, a reactionary group of approximately a dozen artist whose primary uniting manifesto involved their outrage over the direction taken by the committee overseeing the Turner Prize (awarded each year by the Tate Gallery), in its embracing conceptual art. The move cost him his girlfriend at the time, artist Tracy Emin, who happened to be a leadinig conceptual artist. Two years later Childish unjoined the group when he decided to take up conceptual art himself. Tracy, meanwhile, had found someone new. Since then, while still painting, Childish has added short film making (Super 8mm) to his resume, as well as forever lenghtening his discography and starting his own poetry publishing house--Hangman Books. (Love these names.)


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