There was this little window of opportunity in the early aughts where, thanks to the garage-rock revival that helped lay out the welcome mat for bands like the Black Lips, Thee Oh Sees, and The Strange Boys, Billy Childish almost became well-known beyond the legion of devoted fans the unrelenting artist had picked up in his 35+ years making music, paintings, and poetry. While Childish has never actively sought out that spotlight, one admirer, Jack White, tried his damnedest to get the world to pay attention by talking about Childish in interviews, and inviting him to play with White on television; and in true Childish fashion, he wanted nothing to do with it, sparking a feud between the two that was mostly contained to the pages of British magazines.
Whatever his methods, there’s little denying that Billy Childish is a garage-rock savant. When it comes to music, you can trace a pretty straight line from his late-1970s punk-garage output in the band The Pop Rivets, to his more straight-ahead (or as straight-ahead as Billy Childish gets) work in the late-1980s and 1990s in bands like Thee Headcoats and Thee Mighty Caesars, to some of his more blues-influenced stuff at various points. Childish keeps making music, and the scary thing is that it’s almost always good, if sometimes repetitive. And his rate of production remains astonishing, with a discography totaling somewhere in the hundreds of LPs and singles, as well as production duties for artists like Holly Golightly and Dan Melchior. If you count his music alone, Childish is already one of the most prolific artists there is.
Somewhat astonishingly, Childish is a polymath who can play music, write, and paint with the best of them. The latest exhibit of his paintings, going on now till April 20th at Lehmann Maupin’s Chelsea gallery, is an event for more than just fans of Childish and his work. His colorful works call to mind an England, and a world, lost to time. The paintings conjure England’s interbellum years leading up the the Second World War, a time Childish wasn’t alive during, but is fascinated with. By looking at the paintings, you learn something about Childish that maybe wasn’t obvious even after listening to years of his music: while he yearns for the simpler days of the past, he also realizes that the past wasn’t all it is cracked up to be. While Childish writes music as an Englishman, the type of music he plays is almost totally derived from African-American music from the 1930s through the early 1960s. His paintings, on the other hand, are undeniably English. You think that you see Churchill, the Bloomsbury sect, and get a sense of the English countryside when browsing the his works. It isn’t totally what you’d expect amidst the hustle and bustle of Chelsea’s gallery scene, but Billy Childish’s work is undeniably fantastic to look at.