Billy Childish is a born rabble-rouser. The 47-year-old British musician (Pop Rivets, Thee Headcoats), artist, and novelist (My Fault) sports a Wyatt Earp-ian mustache, and, like that legendary officer of the law, he loves a good fight. He issues lists of credos, the most famous of which is his 1999 Stuckist manifesto (number 4: "Artists who don't paint aren't artists"). He disdains prizes, quits projects and bands just as they are taking off, and is adamantly opposed to celebrity, shrugging when someone like Jack White of the White Stripes professes his love. (Childish's response in GQ: "I can't listen to that stuff. They don't have a good sound. Jack's half into the sound and music, but then he wants to be a pop star as well, so you've got a big problem.")
He can come across as high-handed and cantankerous, but he is nothing if not sincere, and he is incredibly prolific. All of which makes him an irresistible figure in underground culture. The art world loves a big fuck-you, so long as it's done with showmanship. And Childish is a consummate showman.
Nonetheless, this showman happily adopts the term "amateur" when describing himself. Doing so, he says, "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 recognizes the truth that we are all just human beings who do things, not professional artists, musicians, and writers who need to prove that we are smarter than everyone else and thereby deserve reverence."
We pretend art and music are special, he says, but "really our artists 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."
Childish expounded on the subject in an e-mail correspondence with me about his current show of paintings and woodcuts at Needles & Pens. Too ill with a kidney infection to come to the phone, he was also too ill to attend the opening as planned, but sent his musings through his wife, Julie Hamper. Hamper and Childish live in Chatham, Kent, England, where he is something of a town eccentric.
His paintings, which decorate his mother's house in Chatham as well as galleries worldwide, depict scenes from his life, including sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a family friend when he was nine. They are obsessively worked, piled with pigment, figurative, colorful. As Jerry Connolly, owner of San Francisco's SmartGuy Records (a label he started ten years ago pretty much in order to put out some of Childish's music) says, the works "never really stray from the primitive. They're easy to grasp, like his music, and that's part of the appeal. It's all very literal. If you can't understand it, I really think there's something wrong with you."
Simplicity is at the heart of Childish's work, and his passion for being straightforward fuels his ongoing argument with conceptual art. His Stuckism manifesto slams postmodernism's attempts to be witty. Postmodernism, he writes, "has shown itself to be lost in a cul-de-sac of idiocy." The manifesto's 11th point: "What was once a searching and provocative process (as Dadaism) has given way to trite cleverness for commercial exploitation. The Stuckist calls for an art that is alive with all aspects of human experience; dares to communicate its ideas in primeval pigment; and possibly experiences itself as not at all clever!"
"I've heard a number of conceptual artists proclaim whatever they do is art because they are artists. On this basis I suggest that they belong in a madhouse," says Childish. "If you follow the same logic, it follows that everything a trash man touches is trash because he is a trash man."
Much like a trash man, Childish has bobbed on the line between pariah and icon for most of his 20-odd-year career. That may be changing. He reports that serious collectors have expressed interest in acquiring big parts of his body of work. Why now? "Maybe 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," he speculates. "Or they want me in their stamp collection because it's become impossible to pretend any longer that I don't exist."