With his army of pseudonyms Billy Childish trampled contemporary art stereotypes, and they melted – slowly, but obediently – underfoot. His paintings resemble works by the artists he loved and learned from – Van Gogh, Bacon, Munch. He dropped out of art school, worked as a shipwright, spent years on the dole in Chatham in Kent, and made novels, volumes of poetry, thousands of paintings and hundreds of punk rock records. He co-founded the Stuckists before leaving. He started the Art-Hate and British Art Resistance movements. This year his work enjoyed great success in June at Art Basel – art’s commercial summit – when gallery Neugerriemschneider chose him as its only artist. The Soft Ashes of Berlin falling on the Hans Fallada’s Nose is his first solo show at the Berlin gallery.
What’s the connection with Hans Fallada?
Well, he took his pseudonym from the horse Falada in the Grimms’ Goose Girl. He has his head cut off but still speaks the truth. I picked up a copy of The Drinker in Pound’s bookshop in Oregon – I’d given up drinking in the early 90s – so I did some paintings around the idea of the drinker. I drank very heavily for 15 years and in the evenings I’d look in the mirror and there’d be this big unreality, seeing through a distorted veil.
Have you spent much time in Berlin?
We played here in the early 80s. I used to tour in Germany a lot in those days and I always had a strong feeling for German things. I really liked the German expressionists. And I’ve a great fascination with the Third Reich, both the world wars, because they made us… I think it’s a defining moment of this strange world we live in.
Can you tell me about your lapel pin?
It says “The Berlin Art Resistance”. I usually do the British Art Resistance. So, this is for the show in Berlin.
What are you resisting?
Well, resistance is always too late. If it’s on time, you don’t need it. The British Art Resistance was about making art instead of making fashion, and fun and verve. It has more to do with my anti-art interests, my interest in Dada, a deeper, darker aspect of my having fun with the work.
I really hated Britart and Cool Britannia – though I don’t hate any of the artists. But I do really hate nationalism. Intensely. A lot of Britart was this kind of lukewarm Dada – what I call ‘Banker’s Dada’.
I suppose I don’t like the English. I like Lawrence’s poetry, and some of Gill’s typography. I think George Orwell was a great writer. And we don’t have much else. Any decent artist either lives outside England or is a weirdo. I refuse to be English is what I always say.
Did you ever think about leaving England?
Well, I was travelling, playing music, so I was always away. We were the only English band on the [Seattle] Sub Pop! label, which also had Nirvana and Mud Honey. They would bring groups to England to break them, because if you break London, you’ve got the country, and this can be really useful for commercial purposes.
But there’s more to England than commercialization, isn’t there? There’s creative tradition…
I’ve always been interested in Shakespeare. I always thought that I should try and find out about him. I always liked dead Russians, and I thought that Shakespeare must be good – if only I could get past not understanding the language. I’ve never had a formal education. In our school, the nearest we got to Shakespeare was Kes – a great film by Ken Loach. The novel’s great. It’s about a boy with a kestrel. If you were at secondary school, you should have had it.
What do you think of the professionalization of art, art schools and art as a career?
I don’t really go for the professional much. I think it should be an occasional aberration if someone works hard – accidental, rather than a career path. The same goes for football, cricket and other things. Everyone’s chasing the label, rather than shrugging it off. People want to validate themselves with art. And that’s tedious. They want celebrity. It’s tedious in pop music and it’s worse in art.
Aren’t they just looking for freedom?
Yeah, everybody’s looking for freedom. But freedom doesn’t come with celebrity. I don’t think there’s any spiritual manual that would suggest it does. Freedom is actually through engagement and limitation. People want gaseous, limitless experience, and that will smash you. So you impose your own limit, and a good way is to find a craft or a way of working that brings you in contact with your limits and yourself.
Art can’t save anybody. But art done in a particular way could – if you use it to quell the ego’s impulse to escape, to run away. It could. Painting suits me, and it’s part of my experience. But it’s not who I am.
Who are you then?
I’m a myth unto myself, the same as everybody else… Who we are is probably fragmented parts of God – and to move beyond our perception of ourselves as separate and individual is probably the job of life.
The Billy Childish exhibition runs through November 13 at Neugerriemschneider.