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BILLY CHILDISH: A SHORT STUDY | Neal Brown
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SHORT STUDY: AN EXTRACT

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Childish's paintings and many woodcuts are mostly autobiographical, many of them are self-portraits, and all of them are figurative. They have been described unfavourably by many commentators as being resolutely independent of, or indifferent to, the concerns and interests of contemporary art practice, and as being overly raw, naive or primitive – or worse, as aberrant and inept.

 

Although Childish had an impoverished education as a child, (stigmatised and disadvantaged because of his undiagnosed dyslexia), he was admitted to art colleges in Medway and London without even basic academic qualifications, solely on the basis of the high quality of his portfolio. Even though he was required to leave these art colleges early by the college authorities, as a consequence of his acts of rebellion, he had been accorded high their approval by virtue of his admission. And from this, at least in part, he had an exposure to degree-level art education.

 

As the consequence of a mythologising process – or as a result of the needs of journalistic storytelling – many different commentators have concluded that Childish is an untaught outsider. As his family has an arts and design background and his older brother is a highly trained painter, Childish would have been exposed to many ideas about art while he was growing up. A controlled, highly competent design sensibility is apparent in his earlier work, which means that the more relaxed, uninhibited, painterly language of his more recent painting is clearly one of informed choice.

 

This more recent painting has an expressionist tendency, and is indebted to Munch – particularly the later Munch – and artists like Hans Richter, the Russian avant-garde painter Mikhail Larionov, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and the Die Brücke group. (Amongst more recent artists, the work of Georg Baselitz may be mentioned.) Childish has often painted in conscious homage to Van Gogh, and the intense, visionary quality of these and other works also place Childish in a relationship with Samuel Palmer and, in some respects, with William Blake.

 

 

 

 

There is also relevance in Childish’s art college association with the artist Peter Doig, with whom he shares a pictorial language of the visionary or magical – the work of both artists sometimes creeping towards the psychedelica. See, for example, Medway Swimming Club (2008) or Forts in Fog (2008). Arguably, Childish’s landscapes are as deeply felt as his portraits, with their depictions of mysterious pools of light, especially in the seascapes. These pools of light are, perhaps, analogous to the light Childish shows in the eyes of his portrait subjects; although earlier paintings show the eyes as abbreviated or enervated, the later ones are often soulful or mystic.

 

Painterly nuance is not necessarily the point of Childish's work. A conspicuous emotional register is – particularly moods that it might be possible to summarise as those of poetic exhilaration. This expressive excitement is not necessarily pleasant, but always emotionally vital, and resonates conspicuously through the artist's painting, writing, poetry and music.

 

Read the Introduction by Peter Doig