Billy Childish ‘Unknowable but Certain’ at the ICA

Billy Childish, anti-art industry punk painter displays his backcatalogue at the ICA

Written by Amica Lane

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Courtesy the artist and L-13, London

Billy Childish is a man of many faces; musician, writer, painter and film maker, he is a name that many people are familiar with, yet find hard to categorize as coming from one particular background. Billy Childish – the singer? Artist? Former one half of the Childish/Emin art power couple that helped launch the Stuckism movement amongst other things.
Envisioning the idea of who Billy Childish is; I tend to think of him more as a drifting outsider, painting away somewhere near the Thames Estuary rather than being displayed inside the glossy walls of the ICA.
But yet, here he is.
The message of his art has a strange juxtaposition here. Suited businessmen and ladies who lunch amble by anti-establishment placards, Childish has created and framed on the walls leading up to the Upper Gallery. Inside the lower gallery, a collection of Childish’s canvases; large oil based work, narrating the mental breakdown and subsequent death of Swedish writer Robert Walser, seeking to portray a man on the edge of society; a rogue outsider.
Although Childish himself would probably detest the label of ‘celebrity’, he has become one regardless. His relationships with other high profile artists (a muse to Tracey Emin who had his name featured in her tent of sexual conquests before it was destroyed in a warehouse fire) and his music career have all created ‘Billy Childish’ as a cult icon, most notable for bucking the system and being a general anti-capitalist miscreant.

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Courtesy the artist and L-13, London

I am always cynical of such exhibitions for those reasons, the celebrity angle always seems a little too overplayed in such environments. But it would be naïve to assume that Art is no less fallible to the celebrity power card than any other creative industry. However, all of this doesn’t detract from the fact that Billy Childish is a great artist.
In my opinion, Childish succeeds most as an artist not with his large oil paintings below, but the room above; where his books, record cover art and poetry are displayed. Billy Childish is someone who is the art. He is not an anonymous painter detached from his work; his very life is a continuing appendage to the artwork itself, and in the Upper Gallery, the two meld together and make more sense. The themes of rebellion, loneliness and rage that tie together Childish as an artist all come together upstairs, where as in the sterile gallery below, it all seems somehow disconnected.

Overall, for fans of Billy Childish the exhibition is a treat and a great retrospect of his work to date. For those who do not know him already, there is still much to enjoy if one can get beyond the strange feeling of contradiction that lingers around the artwork.
Billy Childish ‘Unknowable but Certain’ continues at the ICA until April 18th.

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One Response to “Billy Childish ‘Unknowable but Certain’ at the ICA”

  1. Abi says:

    Always good to see a piece about Billy Childish – whether he’s to your personal taste or not, he’s very interesting!

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