Billy Childish

Billy Childish

Billy kindly invited me to L-13 Light Industrial Workshop in Clerkenwell for a face to face interview: 

Floorr: Tell us about yourself.  How long have you been a practicing artist and where did it all begin?

Childish: I painted from when I was a little boy, as young as I can remember.  My father painted.  He was a commercial artist.  And then my elder brother, who’s four years older than me, painted. So where did it all begin? Oakland’s Infant School, second prize in the County School's Art Competition, I won a picture book of young animals, for doing a painting of Mote Park. I’d never knowingly been there.  They said it’s a park and it’s got ducks. So I thought, all right, I’d do some railings first, then the ducks afterwards and I had to fit them in between the railings.  It got quite complex and it didn't work out very well, but it was good enough apparently.  I’ve still got the book somewhere.

I didn’t do reading and writing very well, I could write creatively but not spell or anything, I didn't read and write properly until I got to about 14, I still can’t spell very well. I applied to Art School when I was sixteen (in 1976) but I was turned down because I didn't have any formal qualifications. I ended up working in Chatham Dockyard as an apprentice stonemason. When I was on block release for my City and Gilds in London I used to stay in a squat in Chalk Farm with my 

elder brother who was studying painting at The Slade, I used to have to come up from Chatham Dockyard and go to Stockwell College of Building so it made sense to stay in town. So I was hanging around The Slade a bit. I walked out of the Dockyard In ’77 and applied to St Martin’s School of Art and was accepted into the foundation year, under what they called 'The Genius Clause - for students who lacked the necessary qualifications but showed exceptional artistic potential. See, I’ve memorised that, and I’ve memorised it because I got in four times that way. 1st time I was not allowed to attend as it was out of the catchment area. This was in the days of grants and Kent County Council wouldn't give you a grant for a student studying in London, only in the local authority area. Also I was too young. 

I wasn’t allowed and had to go for an interview in my local Art School (Medway College). This time they accepted me on the spot - they said, if you can get into St Martin’s, you can get in anywhere. I didn't bring a portfolio and told them I didn't want come to their college but they made me go there. Two weeks after attending I was expelled from 3D and Printmaking and put on probation. I had to attend a review every couple of weeks to see if I’d be expelled or not. At the end of the foundation year it was decided that I hadn’t completed the course so they refused to help me apply to do a degree course. 

Carl Freedman Gallery, London 2016

Carl Freedman Gallery, London 2016

I made a lot of Dada work at that time, as well as still painting figuratively – I even had a bank account under the name of Kurt Schwitters.  I had an old 1940s suit and hat, so I put those on and took my briefcase of collages to St Martin’s, and they accepted me. So I was on the BA painting course. That Dada stuff got me into a lot of trouble at Medway College, I was doing sex collages and all sorts, using hardcore pornography, in those days that could get you thrown out. 

St Martins was full of abstract, expressionist stuff, I hated it, so I walked out after 1/2 a term and painted on my own at home. Then ’79 came round and Thatcher got in and they had a crackdown on dole queue scroungers and I was being forced into finding a job. I took my paintings to St Martin’s and got in again for 1980. This was when I became pals with Peter (Doig), we liked painting and rock and roll. Munch and Van Gogh type stuff wasn’t that popular at the time. Also I was in a group and was away and playing quite a lot. Then my father was arrested for drug smuggling (He'd left home when I was young) but there used to be a small amount of money coming in which my mother syphoned off the odd fiver for me, that stopped when he went inside. These things meant my attendance at college wasn't great, plus I wrote poetry which they said was obscene. Basically they were upset  - I told them I didn't want to become contaminated by painting in their college and that they should come to Chatham if they wanted to see my paintings. 

They said I should get a van and bring the paintings in, but I had no cash. I told them it’d be easier for you to get on the train and come down. And they told me that my attitude was no way about getting a degree and I said, 'What do I want to get a degree for - so I can teach people to get degrees like you do?'  So I was expelled in ’81 for these and other misdemeanors. 

I then started painting quite seriously. That was when I met Tracey Emin who was studying Fashion at Medway and she wanted to become a painter. She knew I was a painter and musician and she’d been round the house where I had all my paintings hung up.

So then Tracey got into painting. I encouraged her to do that, and sort of carried on from there. At that time I only painting once a year - in the summer for about two months, I’d paint 200 or 300 paintings then take a break. Then I decided I couldn't carry on that way and developed my current practice, which is to paint every week. For many years I made between two and five paintings a week. Since 2010, I’ve been painting twice a week but not quite so many.  In between I've always made records, woodcuts, poetry and novels.

Sailish Fisherman, 2015

Fallen Birch Tree , 2016

Fallen Birch Tree, 2016

Floorr: Your studio in Chatham, is that still at your mum’s house?

Childish: No, my small studio is in my mum’s terrace in Whitstable where I paint on Sundays which is where I make the five-foot paintings, I make the eight and ten-foot paintings in the Dockyard in Chatham, this is now a historic dockyard, which is where worked when I left school.

Floorr: How did you come up with the name, Billy Childish?

Childish: In ’77 everyone had a punk rock name. I was a big fan of I Claudius, which had shown the year before so I called myself Gus Claudius, (Gus was one of the names my mother proposed for us kids but my father vetoed it). So I chose Gus Claudius. Then my pal Button Nose Steve said you’re not Gus Claudius, you’re Billy Childish, so I became Billy Childish. When I ended up singing with the Pop Rivets in ’77, the bass player added ‘Wild’ to my name, not because of my behavior as far as I’m aware, just because of Wild Bill Hickok. 

Six years ago,  I asked Button Nose Steve why he named me Billy Childish back then and he said it was because whenever we travelled to London to see the punk shows I would pretending to be a mental retard for hours on end - staggering around as if I was mentally compromised. Apparently that’s the reason. But I never painted under Billy Childish. 

Floorr: Really? 

Childish: I did poetry and lots of things under Billy Childish, but I’ve always painted under my family name, Bill Hamper or William Hamper.  Billy Childish got used in the ’90s when I was doing a lot of exhibitions in Europe, and Germany in particular. These where in cooperatives, and because I was known for playing in groups whenever they put a painting show on they did it under Billy Childish. I told them time and again 'its Billy Childish it’s William Hamper. ' They never listened, I would always end up being Billy Childish. But Billy Childish has never made a painting. He used to make collages and Dada sometimes, but William Hamper paints all the pictures. Finding a painting signed Billy Childish would be very unusual. I’m not aware of doing that. I usually put BH, but now I sign with a picture of a gallows {My small press was called Hangman Books in the ’80s) I got the picture gram idea off of Queequeg (A character from Moby Dick) – his signature was a harpoon because he couldn’t read and write and I can’t read and write great, so I thought it would be nice to have a mark as well.

Floorr: How do you find the best way of starting a painting, what’s your process? 

Childish: I turn up at the studio and I’m not really sure what I’m going to paint but I have piles of Xeroxes and old photos, I just sift through and decide on the spot. Then I draw it very quickly, freehand onto the canvas. No prep, eight-foot canvas in one go and I paint it immediately. Any preparation sketches or studies aren’t preparation or study - they’re made after the original painting, or you could say are final pieces.  

Cave in Winter, 2015

Cave in Winter, 2015

Floorr: Would you say your music and paintings kind of have the similar approach?

Childish: Yes. We record in one or two takes and most songs are not looked at or played again, just released. One of the things that is very similar is that I will refine very specific elements - that nobody would else would notice if I find them out of harmony or balance with the whole. But this also only takes moments, so though spontaneous they're also quite considered.

I really care about what I’m doing but allow the painting to leave me and the music to leave me – this is my processes: always to submit myself to the requirement of the work, so I give myself to the work and I don’t put myself in the work. It’s like being an obedient servant of what’s required. Even if I don’t want to do the painting I will subjugate myself to the work and not force myself into it. This is the secret to creativity and to life. If you listen life will tell you what to do. The painting will tell you what to do, the cooking will tell you what to do. Art is not special, it’s the same as everything else.

Billy busy making a wood cut at L-13, 2016  

Billy busy making a wood cut at L-13, 2016 

Floorr: You recently had a show at the Carl Freedman Gallery.  The House at Grass Valley – could you talk about the title?

Childish: Like all my paintings the painting of the House at Grass Valley is whatever you want it to be.  It’s just a romantic, poetic title, because the house happens to be in Grass Valley. But the particularities of that house in the story are not relevant. You could argue that all my paintings are self-portraits; they're all just one painting made again and again. But as a point of incidental interest, the House at Grass Valley is the house behind my friend Johnny, who was my Best Man at our wedding in Seattle. My wife and me visited the house with Johnny to see his father, who happened to be nearing the end of his life from emphysema. He had built the house, my friend Johnny and his wife, Giselle now own this house and the dog in the picture happens to be their dog. None of this story is in the painting; any interpretation and feeling to the work should be personal to the viewer, because I don’t load any theme or mandate into any of my work. Unless I’m writing a manifesto rock and roll song. 

But as far as painting goes, anything that is to be discerned is to be discerned afterwards by myself also. I don’t have any axe to grind or mandate when I make a picture, anything with any mandate, is made in my anti-art activities, because that is fun and I enjoy it. That’s a bit more directive. For me painting is a very pure form. At Art School they used to try to make me explain what I was doing and why, and I had no idea, and I think their attitude was/is very low-minded. I’ve not thought about this before this moment, it might be one of the things that I don’t like about conceptual work. I don’t like the text, or the low-level poetry to direct my thinking. Without wishing to pick on people this has been employed by artists such as Damien Hirst in their titles, sort adolescent poetry as the excuse for the existence of the 'art'.

Of course I’m quite capable of writing low-level poetry as well, but I like to name it for what it is, I don’t like delusion or confusion I say this with all due regard to Damien, who I think is an incredible phenomena in the world of finance. Those artists are amazing forces and people with determination and insight into how the minds of the masses work, and good luck to them.

Carl Freedman Gallery, London 2016

Carl Freedman Gallery, London 2016

Floorr: Could you talk about "Art Hate" and how it started?

Childish: I was very interested in Dada as a young man, and then insight of Brit art, or 'bankers dada' as I call it. I was trying to think of something that would be good for real anti-art. What I liked about Dada was that it was anti-art, not art, which amused me, and I thought, well, art hate is definitely anti-art, it means the same thing. 

I also didn't like the nationalist sound of ‘Brit Art’, so I formed a thing called The British Art Resistance, and decided they would have a National Art Hate Day, like you have National Poetry Day, etc. Art Hate developed from that. Unfortunately, like a lot of these things, anti-art can become very aesthetic, but that’s the nature of a rebellion, you get sucked up, you know. Anyway, Art Hate is what I do on Thursdays with my pal Steve Lowe. If I wasn’t making this wood cut today I might very well be doing some Art Hate instead. (Billy is making a woodcut as we talk)

Floorr: Does the music you create ever influence the paintings you make?

Childish: Not directly. I used to listen to John Lee Hooker when I painted as a young man, and I have tried painting to Beethoven, but he is too destructive, too mental sounding - one minute beauty, the next all hammers and brimstone. 

Floorr: Do you have any tips for young artists coming out of Art School?

Childish: Attend your life drawing classes, but don’t let your life drawing ruin your painting. And aim high - that means have bigger ambitions than success. Don’t kowtow to galleries, other artists or worry about achieving anything other than doing what the painting asks of you. And be sure that when you have finished your work that it doesn’t matter if no one else likes it, even you. 

To see more of Billy Childish's work please visit the following websites:

Carl Freedman Gallery
Lehmann Maupin
William Hamper

Publishing date of this interview 24/06/16
Photography: Andy Keate, all installation images copyright and courtesy of the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London