Friday, 19 October 2012

Review of Billy Childish: Frozen Estuary and Other Paintings of the Divine Ordinary – Part II at Hoxton Arches, Arch 402

Billy Childish: Frozen Estuary and Other Paintings of the Divine Ordinary – Part II
Hoxton Arches, Arch 402
9 – 21 October 2012

Billy Childish (born Steven John Hamper, 1959, in Chatham, Kent) is a longstanding figure in the art world. His raw, expressionist woodcuts, graphic works, and paintings have been produced in cycles over the past 35 years, alongside the publication of five novels, more than forty volumes of poetry, and over 100 full-length music albums. It is only recently, however, that the anarchic artist has begun to show up on the radar of more mainstream collectors, something he has, and continues, to resist with some vehemence.

His latest exhibition, Frozen Estuary and Other Paintings of the Divine Ordinary – Part II, takes him back to his roots, growing up near to, and working as an apprentice stonemason during his teens at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Chatham. It features eighteen new works, a mixture of large-scale oil paintings and smaller watercolours – something fairly new in Childish’s repertoire, and a response to his success, ensuring that he still has work available which can be sold at lower prices – created over the past year whilst he had an artist’s residency at the Dockyard.

“The stories I heard as a youngster have remained the most potent with me,” says Childish. “They are what grips the imagination.” And this series of work grew out of stories he was told, during his time as an apprentice, about the big freeze of 1947. When he recently stumbled upon a photograph of ice-bound ships from a similar big freeze back in the 1890s, his memories were rekindled, and, after some further research, he found additional photographs from both winters, from which, adding in elements from his own memories and imagination, he produced his new works.

The paintings have an unfinished look to them, with bare patches of canvas showing through. There is a sense of their having been painted in haste, perhaps in an attempt to finish them before the scene thawed. The bare areas are jagged and angular, like sharp juts of ice, and the oil paint drips and glistens like melting ice crystals. The palette is limited, with aquamarines, maroons, yellows and browns, offset against a startling white which reflects every bit as brightly as real snow. The shivers of intense cold permeate not only the worn and weary dockers, despite their full-length wading boots, coats with upturned collars, and caps, but the gallery visitors too.

In amongst these large canvases hang smaller watercolour sketches of the same scenes, bright in their watery blues and purples; clean, crisp and cold. A couple of almost sentimental images of Childish with his toddler daughter break up the collection of labour and toil, infusing the series with a sense of light-hearted childlike enjoyment of the snow, back in the days of innocence and easy enchantment, as Childish puts it, “knowing less of the boundaries of the world.”

Finally, one immense, larger-than-life portrait canvas looms, depicting a full-length, naked Childish, drawn in charcoal, with a cross around his neck. His head is leaning forward in an almost challenging manner, as if he were exclaiming: “Look at me! I’m here!” And, indeed, he is. Despite his long time coming, Childish has now hit the art scene big, and, I predict, is here to stay.


All images courtesy the artist and L-13 Light Industrial Workshop

Frozen Estuary - Oyster Smack, Caroline, 1947 (violet series)2012
oil and charcoal on linen
122 x 183 cm

Frozen Estuary - River Roach, 1947 (watercolour)
watercolour on paper
22.5 x 33.5 cm

Father with Daughter Walking (watercolour)
watercolour on paper
22.5 x 33.5 cm

charcoal on linen
244 x 122 cm

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