In Focus: Billy Childish’s poignant, tender depiction of his wife, completely idiosyncratic and entirely compelling

Billy Childish's art is both outstanding yet often misunderstood — something that an exhibition in Margate's Carl Freedman Gallery looks to rectify. Lilias Wigan paid a visit.

Painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker and Punk musician, English artist Billy Childish (b.1959) has been remarkably diverse in his creative output from a young age.

At 16, he left school and spent a short time working (his only formal employment) as an apprentice stonemason in Chatham Dockyard, where he made 600 drawings in just six months, earning him a place to study painting at St Martin’s School of Art, London. Refusing to conform, he was expelled after a year and a half, but not before he had befriended the artist Peter Doig, who co-curated his first London exhibition at the Cubit Street Gallery in 1993 and later described Childish as ‘one of the most outstanding, and often misunderstood, figures on the British art scene’.

Carl Freedman Gallery, a prominent player in the revival of Margate’s art scene, is hosting a solo exhibition of Childish’s new work, entitled ‘man in the mouth of a cave’. Sixteen oil and charcoal on linen canvases spread across three galleries focus on the theme of landscapes and swimming, as well as a series of nudes. One of the most poignant and tender of the swimming series is swimmer and waterfall (2018).

The swimmer — modelled on the artist’s wife Julie Hamper, who features in many of the works here — glides out toward a base of ripples emanating from a radiant, ethereal waterfall. Her scissoring legs gracefully push the water as she reaches for her target. Outstretched arms seem to dissolve into the undulating surface of the pool.

The ground colour of the canvas, particularly that which forms the river’s depths, is stained more than painted, the thin application granting the water a slightly mystical presence. The churning ripples of paint at the forefront, where light catches the surface, exemplify a more Surrealist style of brushwork.

Straggles of lime foliage hang from a top corner — the only structuring feature of the foreground. The leaves place the swimmer in the context of her natural surroundings as well as implying the artist’s station — he could be watching from a tree or a rock above, as if guarding the figure.

'man in the mouth of the  cave', the Billy Childish exhibition at Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate. Photo: Ollie Harropollie

‘man in the mouth of the cave’, the Billy Childish exhibition at Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate. Photo: Ollie Harropollie

Frequently Surrealist in style, Childish’s work is full of recognisable artistic references. Often, it calls to mind the pictures of Edvard Munch, whose later, ‘less symbolic work’ he admired.

Childish’s use of grain-yellow pigment and his whirling patterns also recall Van Gogh. His mother read him Lust for Life, a classic biography of Van Gogh, from the age of 10. It became one of his favourite books and he cites its ideas about being an artist as particularly influential.

By drawing upon artistic lineage so freely, Childish has been able to develop his own informed visual style, remaining completely idiosyncratic and entirely compelling.

Billy Childish’s  ‘man in the mouth of a cave’ exhibition is at the Carl Freedman Gallery, Margate, until 25th August — carlfreedman.com


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