Billy Childish: Spirit Guides and Other Guardians Joining Heaven and Earth
Lehmann Maupin Gallery: 501 West 24th Street, New York
November 10, 2022 - January 7, 2023
I'm going to say upfront that this is a "middling review." I think that it's important to write bad reviews now and again because too often nowadays a lot of art reviews are positive and written to promote allies rather than for the sake of the art itself. A middling review's purpose is to suggest that with a little more focus the work could be great.
Art criticism is justification for a particular way of looking and of enough judgement to recommend improvements. I like what Billy Childish does. I like his band "Thee Headcoats"-- the neo-prospector drag that he zhooshes* up with his handlebar mustache to "put over" his paintings. I love artists who have a costume: Klimt's embroidered muumuu or Warhol's wig (particularly in the '80s). I tried a ginger one myself for my Lummox Project, but I couldn't stick with it.
Childish has stuck with it and going into Lehmann Maupin on 24th street you can't mistake the work and the way the paintings look in the room, for anyone else. You feel, particularly in the second room, like you're standing on a headland looking out across a wide river to another bank and a background of high hills. Like it's you and the North West Frontier for the first time. Painted as if CinemaScope could be rendered in chalky earth colours.
He keeps his palette limited to tertiary tones -- lemon yellow and some freezing morning light blues and aqua greens. He has a very convincing line, that carves up space and fills out figures. I can almost see him doing it with a stick of charcoal across a large, buff untreated canvas. There's a stylized fill that you see in some of the dark silhouetted trees in paintings like "Salish Fisherman." It's made of squiggles on the ground of the canvas where areas of paint are "doing" something irrespective of each other perhaps for some narrative purpose.
Pulling back, larger parts of the paintings are outlined or repeatedly outlined creating a ripple. Munch does something similar, it can be used to separate a tree from a sky or a face from a lake in the background. I think this kind of paint handling that's both decorative and spatial, sometimes serves another purpose as if some of the areas can be read as energy fields. A metaphor for the vibrations of all living things. Kandinsky and Mondrian were inspired by Madame Blavatsky to enter the spirit world on the way to Abstraction. Childish's figures in hyper-extended landscapes take us back to the end of symbolism and the beginning of modernism. I think he likes the borderlands between art movements and he wants to tap the presence of forces outside of human control.
Looking back can automatically imbue a work with deeper contours. Done well it can summon other spirits and their era without directly quoting anyone. But the past can be an issue, while as an artist you want to place yourself relative to the art and artists you like, time has already made its decision about them, you run the risk of them overshadowing you.
That said, he has definitely created his own idiosyncratic language of marks for his work. In this painting of a figure the decorated fills take up more space. The rock he's on is dashed and dotted in glittery points and the ripples around its base are tadpole strokes. In the shadow of the man are vibration lines coming out from the body. They are repainted and reiterated as if the first strike is not enough. The painting does have a wood cut feel about it. The land, the sea, and the man cut out in deep grooves.
The figures in the boats don't look as if they're actually steering them but are turned towards the viewer "showing" themselves. His swimmer is also looking directly at us as is the one posing on the rock. It's as if they represent Childish's "neo-prospector" look, like a fashion spread or a record cover where the band are trying out a new image.
The re-painted line stiffens the figures, making them look more posed, ossifying the initial drawing. When the loose, skittish, decorative marks are laid into areas as fill, it doesn't lighten the feel of the painting but reinforces how hemmed in they are by the iterated and re-iterated line.
In one painting "Salish Fisherman," however, everything comes together.
The line isn't too stultified and the fills are light and frothy. When Childish manages to balance his influences and his ideas about how paintings should look it really works. This is a great painting that looks both like an old book illustration and a living breathing update on symbolist painting. Something new out of recherche elements.
It shows a boat heading away from us down river with two oarsmen looking back towards us. The water is cold and treacly as deep water gets.
The forest on the other bank is lit in half tones with dashes of misty paint strokes. Facing us is a bank of darker pine trees whose branches form a loose decorative grid. A painting moment like this reminds me of other formal abstract painters but it's just a stanza here. The painter's ability to both create and decorate space is exciting. There are illustrative elements and bold expressionist strokes like a halfway place between elements, actually more like a crossroads.
So, I think, if these were a little better they'd be exponentially a lot better. Some are held back by, on the one hand a cautiousness in the outline and on the other a dashed-off ness in the fill. Mostly if he just laid in his line and let it be I think the impact would be greater. I believe many of his paintings are in the middle, teeter tottering on the edge of greatness.
*Zhoosh -- Style hair, tart up, mince (Romani -- "zhouzho" -- clean, neat).