Billy Childish | Inclement or Spotless Conditions, No Matter

Via Issue 184, The Tempest Issue, Out Now!

Written by

Julia Smith

Photographed by

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Styled by

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Billy Childish. “salish fishermen” (2022). Oil and charcoal on linen. 72” x 120”. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Billy Childish is an artist. Billy Childish is a musician. Billy Childish is a poet. Billy Childish has a very distinct mustache. Billy Childish co-founded the Stuckism art movement in 1999 to promote figurative painting as opposed to conceptual art. Billy Childish has left the Stuckism art movement. Billy Childish is a radical traditionalist. Billy Childish doesn’t care much for echo chambers (or any group that agrees with itself, for that matter), so at the very least, we’ll stop echoing his name. 

When I call Childish via video chat, he answers from his home in Rochester, Kent, one of the Medway towns in South East England. He’s just returned from Spain where he was playing a festival “at a notorious holiday destination for drunken Englishmen and English ladies,”—a destination he had previously refused to play because of his aversion to modern PA systems. He additionally cites a dislike for the region’s style of brutal, modern power-block holiday homes, (“done expensive on the cheap, you know”). Childish isn’t one for pomp or pretension. 

Billy Childish. “tree - seattle” (2022). Oil and charcoal on linen. 96” x 72”. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Sitting in a tastefully decorated and cozy living room where a wood-carved mantelpiece sits in its center, Childish introduces me to his cat, Shackleton, and later on his wife and muse, Julie Hamper. The house is located not far from Chatham, where the multi-disciplinary artist was born, a stone’s throw away from the Naval Dockyards where he worked as an apprentice stonemason before gaining entry to London’s Central Saint Martins School of Art. Childish’s educational foray didn’t last long as the artist’s rigid aversion to categorization, assimilation, and the institutional forces behind these tendencies saw him instead dedicating his life to the beat of his own polyrhythmic drum.  

“I’m not very good at going along with orthodox viewpoints,” Childish says, “because the herd wants that. I don’t want to be in any echo chamber, and I don’t need to be within any group that agrees with itself. Because I find it to add to the weakness of my mind,” he laughs, “which I’ve tried to keep a bit keener than that.” With a breadth of work spanning over 40 volumes of confessional poetry, over 150 LPs, and enough paintings to fill a museum several times over, Childish has certainly been busy over the span of his career, gaining somewhat of a cult status worldwide.  

Billy Childish. “swimmer yuba river” (2022). Oil and charcoal on linen. 108” x 72”. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

“I paint pictures to find out what they’ll be like,” the artist tells me. “So, in a sense, there’s no direction. Someone can try and look at the symbolism, but that symbolism would be unconscious, because I don’t try to direct how I feel or get a message across. The unconscious, I suppose, has absolute free rein in my pictures, because I don’t try to make them look like anything. I don’t try to get a message across. I just paint.” 

Childish’s latest exhibition at Lehmann Maupin, New York—Spirit Guides and Other Guardians Joining Heaven and Earth—unites the natural world with the spiritual and material nature of the artist’s work. With images of Mount Tahoma and its surrounding bodies of water, the collection teases its toes into surrealism, guided by Childish’s expressionist style.  

Familiar figures emerge from the muted palette—his signature mustache even making an appearance—and Childish’s wife wades in the shallows of the Yuba River.  

When asked about the themes embedded in this particular issue of Childish’s inclusion—The Tempest Issue—the artist remarks on weather patterns’ influences on our day to day, “Everything’s out of our control!” he laughs, “I mean, you’ve got, at minimum, certain control, and you can have certain control about your reaction to things, but the world lives us—we don’t live the world.” 

Billy Childish. “salish canoe” (2022). Oil and charcoal on linen. 72” x 120”. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul, and London.

Childish elaborates that a ‘beautiful day’ exists regardless of the weather outside, but is often marked by a feeling of calm—a pleasant, balanced atmosphere, “and maybe laughter,” he considers. “I like laughing at things. Maybe doing some exercise that works and feels natural.” He shares that teaching his two children to paint creates deep satisfaction, and remarks that the process contributes to “things that feel harmonious, I suppose.”

This notion of harmony is something that underlies Childish’s creative process. To guide the work without the weights of ego, trusting that the final image will appear from the depths of the unconscious. “When I make my pictures,” he concludes, “I don’t make the pictures I want to make, so I often don’t feel satisfied with my pictures… but sometimes I do.”  

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