Billy Childish speaks to the heart of what it means to be creative
"I paint, write and make music, but these are mundane descriptions. We are all creative but some of us have it in our nature, or necessity, to maintain this and give whatever art form we choose pre-eminence in our lives. I believe that all these attributes are non-personal and from God: any minor investigation into reality will reveal that we create nothing within the universe; we merely manifest within it. What we are is not very clear to us.
I’m instinctive within a framework of rules. I paint smaller paintings on Sundays and large canvases on Mondays. I tend to start and finish a painting in one sitting and rarely return to correct or edit. Over the years I’ve developed methods of working quickly that I picked up from looking at the artists I admire – van Gogh, Munch, Schmidt-Rottluff – an energised, instinctive approach. I allow the painting to be quite automatic, creating a great freedom within the apparent limitations.
My approach to creating music and art is unusual as I don't fear or care much about an audience or possible failure. Basically, if the painting goes well I get out of the way and allow the picture to paint itself. Sometimes I have to step in and that’s when the trouble begins. The sooner I step out of it again and stop trying to impose my will, the better.
"I have no block because I never force anything...Sometimes I like my pictures, other times I don’t" — Billy Childish
I’m a radical traditionalist because I understand that freedom comes from the ego being released in tradition. Some might be confused by the term “radical traditionalist.” That’s good. But its meaning might become clearer if inverted – I work in a tradition of radicalism. Through my interests in painting I can trace my lineage through generations of other painters - I become part of something greater and I can understand what I’m doing and my place: picking up a torch lit in the caves and passing it on. That might sound pretty pretentious but if you look at real painters you know it has to be true. Rather than being limiting, tradition provides the framework of freedom.
I have no block because I never force anything – or rather I don’t demand success. Sometimes I like my pictures, other times I don’t: it doesn’t get to me like it might other artists. I only really identify with painting the painting. I’m not invested in identifying myself as painter or writer or musician, these are just things that I do, I refuse to be defined by them. This might lead people to think that I don't care about what I do, but I do. I care and love it deeply. I'm just not fussy and love regardless.”
The hard-to-define Billy Childish once famously declared: "I am not a painter, I am not a musician, and what sort of idiot would want to be a poet?" The truth is, he is all these things and more. His prolific catalogue of work includes more than 2,000 paintings, 150 albums, five novels, seven films and 45 volumes of poetry.
"I am not a painter, I am not a musician, and what sort of idiot would want to be a poet?" — Billy Childish
The artist formerly known as Steven Hamper has been described by Peter Doig as "one of the most outstanding, and often misunderstood, figures on the British art scene". During their relationship in the 1980s, his name was often mentioned in tandem with ex-girlfriend Tracey Emin who featured his moniker prominently in her 1995 artwork; “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 – 1995”. Nowadays, you’re more likely to hear him name-dropped by celebrity collectors Jack White, Beck or the filmmaker Larry Clark, who has announced plans to adapt Childish’s novel “My Fault” for the big screen.
A co-founder of the Stuckist art movement, Childish helped define their early manifesto, which stated: “artists who don’t paint aren’t artists.” No longer a member of the group, he continues to paint pro-figurative and anti-conceptual art, favouring brightly coloured, wildly distorted abstract portraits. Ahead of his exhibition at the arts and culture festival St. Moritz Art Masters, Billy Childish spoke to us about his creative path, practices and philosophies.
St. Moritz Art Masters runs until August 31.
Text by Frankie Mathieson