Billy Childish: Unknowable but Certain on now at The Institute of Contemporary Arts until 18 April 2010.
I remember Billy Childish giving poetry readings during heyday of Survivors Poetry events at the Hampden Community Centre in Kings Cross in the early 1990s. With a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a book in the other he’d spit out words of love and hate for the world; of childhood experiences of sexual abuse - and a bitter search for redemption through extremes of human behaviour. Childish’s confessional style in word, paint and woodblock, gives vent to a search for god, nature and meaning that takes us on a journey through the blood and guts of life.
I felt an affinity with Childish’s work immediately, his music, poetry and his art. The ICA reflects some of the incredible output of volumes of poetry, novels, art, films and recordings by the various punk bands he has fronted. Aside from the paintings and posters there is a wall of album covers, a table of poetry collections, music blaring amongst terminals with headsets, showing samples of his film-making.
It’s hard not to be intimidated by the vastness of Childish’s talent and drive for creating work in all genres. His confessional style expresses everything with a brutal honesty. With a tongue firmly in his cheek, he plays with contradiction, reflects on life with an intensity and an occasional tenderness that show him baring his soul. Childish can’t, won’t, be labelled or follow a trend or go anywhere that isn’t authentic. He confers meaning through reference to everyday events. Whilst his style includes observations from the world of art, he takes no prisoners when confronting hypocrisy.
As the 90s progressed so Childish matured, gave up drinking, turned to meditation and yoga and sought god in gentler pursuits. His performances at the Hampden were still imbued with a fighting spirit, biting back on years of self-loathing. It is great to see him finally, after all these years of having to go to Europe for any recognition of his talent, finally, get a retrospective at the ICA. It seems somehow ironic that the Institute for Contemporary Arts is currently itself struggling to survive; as if it finally recognised a kindred spirit in the work of Childish.
Childish is driven to wrench the last drop of the juices of life out of every experience that come his way – and put them into words, songs, films and art. His appeal is his ability to make you recognize yourself in the search for truth. He is motivated by an integrity which seems to have no boundaries.
The recent paintings in the ICA’s downstairs gallery, whilst full of vitality and energy, show a calmer, reflective side to Childish. The last time I saw an exhibition of his paintings was at the Phoenix Gallery, Brighton in about 2002/3, when the subject matter was much darker, concentrating on sexual abuse.
Two of the paintings on show at the ICA depict the writer Robert Walser dead in the snow. The catalogue contains a prophetic excerpt from the authors’ novel ‘The Tanners’ in which his poet character Sebastian is found by a friend after a death he calls ‘beautiful.’
There is a wintry edge to most of the landscapes and images of the river. There are self-portraits which make reference to Childish as the ‘The Son of Art’ – depicting the artist wearing a yellow suit, lost in the vastness of the Kent landscape. These paintings make reference to some of Childish’s campaign activities with The British Art Resistance.
Many of the paintings on exhibition, celebrate the working life of the river, or depict Van Gogh-like vases of flowers. ‘Unknowable but Certain’ is a testament to the dark, challenging sense of humour which is at the heart of much of Childish’s work as a poet and artist. It’s about time. I’d thoroughly recommend a visit.