“Unknowable but Certain” is a new exhibition at the ICA in London which brings together the multitude of works from throughout the career of the fabulous Billy Childish. A musician, artist, novelist, film maker and poet he is a truly unique talent that has influenced people from Tracy Emin to Jack White, but one that is hard to pin down as he is constantly adapting and changing his working mediums and styles. However, his greatest work of art is his own life and persona, over his thirty year career he has constantly adapted and challenged modern society forcing you to think about whatever is being thrust at us as the latest and greatest – amazingly this is his first major solo exhibition to encompass the entirety of his extraordinary career to try and understand his broad rang of activities as a total work of art.
Perhaps best known for his music, Childish has been behind a string of groups such as Thee Headcoats and, Buff Medways and The Milkshakes. None of his group have ever become a household name, but the punk rock meets 60s R&B sound he has finessed throughout his career has gained much critical acclaim and inspired bands such as The Hives, White Stripes, The Strokes, Blur and been passionately championed by superstars as diverse as Kurt Cobain and Kylie Minogue, who even named her album “Impossible Princess” after one of his poems.
His career as an artist stretches back to the late 70s where he enrolled at St Martins in London. Developing his style over the years he has constantly produced and displayed his works of art, although is now more widely rcognised for his deliberately retro expressionist style and basic, almost child like wood cuts. Highly collaborative he often works beside contemporaries such as Jamie Reid and James Cauty, but it is his relationship with former girlfriend Tracy Emin that has gathered the most attention, he has featured in several of her works and she has often been accused of stealing his methods (especially in the early days of her career).
In addition to being a hugely influential rock star and artist he is also an acocmplished poet and author, releasing over 40 books of works that often examine his turbulent and abusive childhood.
Childish’s greatest work though is the persona he has created around himself – growing from a snotty punk rocker fighting against the established norms of the time he has grown into an enigmatic and eccentric figure who dresses like a Victorian explorer, acts like a curmudgeonly old man and channels the past to make us question the future. He has never been scared to challenge the status quo, and as such has become known as one of the most contrary figures on the British art and music scene . He is an advocate of amateurism in art and has often declared that “there is nothing more vile than a proffesional artist or musician”, claiming that amateurs bring a passion and drive to art that professionals can never achieve. His most famous comment on art came in 1999 when at the height of the YBA movement he formed the Stuckist movement, a reaction against conceptual art and claims his paintings were “stuck in a rut”. The Stuckists actively promoted figurative painting and declared in their manifesto that “Artists who don’t paint aren’t artists”. Of course this, like a lot of what he says is for effect as he has often spoken of his love for the father’s of conceptual art the Dadists and even has a tattoo of a Kurt Schwitters poem.
“Unknowable but Certain” examines this persona by looking at Childish’s work from throughout his career, it features two galleries of work. The first includes a group of Childish’s recent paintings, which have an unusual command and power. It includes self-portraits, often shown hill-walking; images of boats on the Medway, the estuary where he lives; still lifes with flowers, featuring pots made by the artist’s mother; and paintings depicting the Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser, including works based on police photographs showing the author dead in the snow. Highly expressionistic, they convey a sense of the visionary significance that he discovers in objects, places and people. They also demonstrate the deliberate rejection of the contemporary world that is a feature of all his work.
The second gallery presents Childish’s output as a musician and writer, covering a career which began in 1977 and providing a context within which the recent paintings can be understood. One room concentrates on his music, which has involved a huge range of collaborators and bands and which maintains a stubbornly independent ethos originating in the punk era. The second room features books and pamphlets containing Childish’s writings, often designed and published by him and illustrated by his own woodcuts. The display includes polemical and campaigning literature, but also his more personal poetry and prose, much of which is profoundly autobiographical in nature.
One of my true heroes. Billy Childish is a man who walks his own path in life driven by his unswerving belief in what is real and important, but tainted by the bitterness of failure that that haunts us all. He also has the best moustache and collection of vintage clothing in London!
Visit Billy Childish “Unknowable but Certain” at the ICA in London from 17th February until 18th April.