MGM 2006 - Billy Childish At Gardner Arts Centre Brighton

By Siba Matti | 12 May 2006
a painting showing two figures on a bridge

© Billy Childish

Siba Matti heads off to the Sussex University Campus to discover the work of backwater genius Billy Childish.

Paintings of a Back Water Visionary, a new exhibition running at the Gardner Arts Centre from May 6 to June 10 2006, is an opportunity to discover the work of controversial artist, musician and author, Billy Childish.

On show are a selection of abstract pencil drawings and woodcuts, textured oil paintings, and bold record sleeve designs.

Formerly an apprentice stonemason, Childish decided to leave a world of manual labour behind to pursue a career in the arts, and in doing so, acquired a somewhat rebellious reputation.

A student at the prestigious St Martins College of Art in 1981, Childish was openly opposed to art bureaucracy, and was eventually thrown out, for refusing to paint pictures with the school, as “he did not want to become contaminated,” and for publishing poetry that one tutor described as “the worst type of toilet humour I have ever seen.”

a painting of a skull and a candle on a table

© Billy Childish

Despite this, after years of ‘painting on the dole’, 25 years later, he has achieved international fame, and a huge fan base, including the likes of singer Kylie Minogue, former Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant, playwright Mike Leigh and the late singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain.

This exhibition provides a mere sample of a an extensive body of work, which comprises of over 2,500 paintings, three novels, 100 records and over 40 poetry collections.

Many different themes have been woven into the designs. Born, raised and still residing in Chatham, Kent, it is clear that Childish has real affection for his hometown, and its local churches are a notable feature of the woodcuts. The religious theme continues with Raising of Lazarus, an oil depiction of a Bible story in which Jesus miraculously restored a dead man to life.

Other works reveal Childish’s wild streak- William Loveday with Prostitute, a wooden oil painting awash with aquatic colours, shockingly depicts a cheeky sailor enjoying the sordid services of his lady friend. Another painting, Will and Janet, is equally audacious.

a painting with an abstract figure in the foreground and church in the background and the words Chatham across the top

© Billy Childish

Skulls have a strong presence in Death and the Drinker, and Still Smoking Cigarette, which both represent struggles with addiction. Clever use of colour and shading gives the designs an extraordinary three-dimensional effect: every ridge can be observed in the skulls’ bone structures.

Thinking of Death and Night Visitors, a vision of three grim reaper-like figures eagerly waiting to claim their next victim, also adopt dark, sinister tones. As with much of his poetry, Childish’s art seems to have an autobiographical element- the viewer cannot help but wonder whether each piece represents a particular part of the jigsaw puzzle of his life.

Although perhaps not to everyone’s tastes, this daring work has a rare element of true individuality that makes Childish stand apart from many of today’s contemporary artists.

As he eloquently stated in a recent interview, “ Following your star- what’s in your heart- is the long way round. It is often lonely, but to gain maturity you have to give up your need to be petted and congratulated at every turn, have a bit of guts and not surrender to instant gratification.”

a painting of a man at a table as a skeleton figure pours him a glass of alcohol

© Billy Childish

One thing is certain - Childish has proved even his staunchest critics wrong- and surely that is his biggest achievement of all.

Billy Childish will be giving a speech on his work at the Gardener Arts Centre on June 3 2006. Due to limited seating, advance booking is recommended.

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