Cult labels can obscure the viewer’s perspective of the artist’s work, with associations of niche celebrity given meaning by sycophantic fans and media observers. Childish is touted as a ‘cult’ figure in his latest exhibition at Chatham dockyard. This could scream popular or ‘cool’ to the ‘right’ people or celebrate an alternative and underground status. Childish’s character(s) loom large, set on pleasing themselves before courting the crowd, perhaps at the risk of eclipsing his work. In a 2010 video for the Tate’s ‘Sound and Vision’ series, he dons the costumes of painter and musician to playfully interview himself, with respectably awkward questions. When the artist asks about his influence on the musician, the answer is ‘no’ followed by a wistful smile.
The frozen estuary series offers something pleasantly different. The dockyard exhibition gives some space to history and personal mythologising – displays of album covers, books and memorabilia to greet the audience. Maybe this is a triumphant return to a place he left with little love lost.
13 oil and charcoal on linen paintings cover the main walls, some with the paint still wet. Despite featuring friends and family, the subject seems less personal, the focus is the river itself, depicted in vivid blues and whites and frozen in time and canvas. Inspired by photos of the winters of 1895 and 1947 when both estuaries froze over, Childish captures a stark landscape, where workers pose with boats locked in ice, dominated by blue skies and glaring white. Details run in earthy browns, a muck upon the landscape, as wet paint dribbles down many of the canvases, forming icicles of dirt and snow.
Here is something about place rather than person, escaping the ‘cult’ cliché and exploring the relationships between time, place and identity. A full size nude stands by the entrance, leading visitors through the memorabilia to something else entirely. Something brave.
The exhibition is on at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham, until 30th September 2012. Details are available at: http://www.thedockyard.co.uk/NetsiteCMS/pageid/1023/Billy%20Childish.html
By Roy Smith