Billy Childish is England's greatest undercover performance artist--in a Mod-reborn-as-neo-Edwardian-spy package. Even his mighty moustache, so real it looks fake, is part of the act. "I consider myself neither painter, writer, nor musician," he claims, the vast whisk above his upper lip bobbing assent like a mute ventriloquist's dummy. "So many artists don't understand that what you are and what you do are two very different things. Billy Childish bores me stupid."
When he talks about separating self from persona, the painter, writer, and musician isn't just talking out of the battered gray porkpie that punctuates the upper half of his trim frame. Or is he? At a table on Grumpy's boisterous patio, Childish lounges shoeless, nursing a pot of tea and a pair of sore feet while his own Ox-Op opening proceeds sans artiste. Granted, he has a good excuse--he's resting up for spoken-word and musical performances later in the evening. Still, everything about him screams "living work of art."
Bre'er Billy's absence from the gallery gives the exhibition a dramatic air that might be lost in the usual party crush. The woodcuts dominating "Ox-Op Gallery Presents Billy Childish" run from gritty to macabre to both. Granted, the medium is inherently dark; you have to Chagall the fuck out of a woodcut to make it look like anything other than Judgment Day. Childish takes the opposite route, sharpening scenes both sordid and mundane with an angularity so raw that even thoroughly precooked subjects come out bloody in the center; the titular critter in Squirrel might just be the most criminal-looking tree-dweller in art or life. More to the point, Man and Girl 3 depicts a gaunt, middle-aged naked guy crouching on a low platform, gazing indifferently at the unclothed woman fellating him below.
While patrons circulate, comparing notes in hushed tones and planning acquisitions (the stuff isn't priced to linger), Childish, a dozen yards removed, multitasks without apparent effort--simultaneously joking with Ox-Op and Grumpy's kingpin Tom Hazelmyer about the difficulty of staying erect during an upside-down foot beating; holding forth on the importance of John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene in early Christianity; chatting with fans; signing books, CDs, and vinyl newly purchased in the gallery; and discussing his work.
"People think I'm being cute by feigning ignorance, but I am, really," the mostly self-taught artist explains. "I'd been doing woodcuts for some time when I discovered the German Expressionists. Obviously, there are affinities, but that sort of thing is inevitable. Everything is in the ether, just waiting to come through."
At first glance, Childish seems an unlikely mystic. A secondary-school dropout later expelled from St. Martin's School of Art for refusing to color inside conceptual lines, the 45-year-old renaissance bloke first made his mark as the hard-drinking leader of garage-punk avatars Thee Milkshakes and Thee Headcoates, earning praise from the likes of Kurt Cobain. Meanwhile, he self-published numerous volumes of poetry and painted assiduously.
Stuckism, the back-to-modernist-basics movement Childish co-founded in 1989, helped introduce his visual art to a wider audience. Typically, the now ex-Stuckist disavows the group with a simple, "I wish people would stop blaming the entire thing on me."
Off the sauce for more than a decade, Childish lives healthily with a vengeance. "The last time he was in town, he made me take him to Whole Foods three times," red-meat-and-cigarette fiend Hazelmyer complains. But neither organic grub nor the pursuit of various spiritual modalities have dampened Childish's sense of humor; he recently collaborated on a film with the self-explanatory title, Yoga and Smoking, which soon he'll undoubtedly claim to have had nothing to do with. The self-proclaimed "intentional nobody" seeks even more distance from his newly published novel, Sex Crimes of the Futcher, which he spontaneously blurbs as "a relentless attack on arts institutions."
"The main character wrote it," he claims. "Not me. It's pure fiction." Leaning forward, he adds softly, "And I lived every minute of it."