Billy Childish is an artist who can fit no one description. He is a novelist, poet, musician and artist, and his latest series of paintings titled ‘the house at grass valley’ is now on display at Carl Freedman Gallery in East London.
The gallery is filled with nine large-scale paintings on linen, painted in Childish’s signature style. Thickly applied brushstrokes of often unmixed colour fill the space, with large areas of raw linen showing through. The majority of the works are executed in a subdued and muted palate, which allows small flashes of colour an increased vibrancy. Repetitive intricate pattern is used to suggest background textures that are at once ornamental and subtle.
Alongside these, a selection of novels accompanies the show. Russian works by Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoyevsky set the brisk wintery theme that pervade the paintings. These in turn create images of Childish himself sat hunched over a desk with a blanket round his shoulders, working stoically inside ‘the house at grass valley’.
The size of the canvasses and the way they are panoramically displayed heightens the feeling that the viewer stands within the environment depicted. The sense of immersion is such that the viewer is lost in this cold landscape. The house is a welcome sanctuary from the unforgiving woods.
Trees are often seen from below. This cropping off of the peaks of the branches creates a sense of foreboding and makes the many trunks crowd ever tighter. The scenes are largely unpopulated save for a single recurring dog that conjures images of companionship whilst also reinforcing the isolation that the house engenders.
In the non-didactic style that is so characteristic of Childish, the location of this house is, in his own words “immaterial”. The paintings should speak for themselves and the viewer should disregard any other concerns about narrative. The house could be any house, and because of this the viewer is transported to a similar location of which he or she has had some prior experience. The works create a semblance of familiarity for a place we have once been and our response to the paintings is in part influenced by our own nostalgia.
Even the name sounds vague in its own way and in this we are taken back to an emotional place that these works echo. We are alone in the woods, and feel all of the loneliness and isolation that these places suggest. The experience we have when standing in front of an artwork is intrinsically unique. For that reason Childish allows us as much freedom of interpretation as is possible.
Much of the artist’s work is melancholic but that is not to say that it is bleak. Childish uses the feeling of melancholy to create a space for introspection and calm, both for himself and the viewer.
Two paintings resemble Childish himself, and upon my asking whether they were self-portraits he responded “They could well be”. All of the works however, could be read in this same way. The shamanic way in which Childish paints; quickly and without design, creates an unbridled outpouring of internal emotion upon the canvass, regardless of his subject matter.
Billy Childish rejects many of the conventions of the modern art world and simply creates paintings. He is comfortable in himself to not need the narcissistic public persona and lyrical obscurantism that many artists feel the need to employ, and his work displays a tender honesty that speaks to all. The show is a testament to this, and the beautiful paintings are universal in their appeal.