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Billy Childish

Modern Painters


By Charlie Schultz


Though less impressive than its predecessors, Chidish’s fourth exhibition at Lehmann Maupin does hold moments of dashing brilliant. The 11 paintings on view, all from 2015, grew closely to the artist’s characteristic approach to the medium, which is to scale up photographs into electrifying works on unprimed lined. His subject matter—listed in the exhibition title, “flowers, nudes and birch trees”—is so firmly rooted in the Western tradition of painting that it gives the show an academic air.

 

But Childish is not an academic artist; he was expelled from Central Saint Martins as a young man for refusing to paint indoors so as not to become corrupted. Be he is a talented enough mark maker an colorist that his dots, slashes and squiggles of paint tend to pump life into whatever he chooses to portray. In this exhibition, his birch tree pianissimos vibrate with painterly animation. Silver Birch and Birch Wood are executed in such a chromatically high range that they seem penetrated by light, as if they were made of stained glass. Much more than woodland scenes, these works are orchestras of luminosity.

 

Childish’s nudes and self-portraits are less compelling, in part owing to the sparseness of brushwork. The canvases are mostly grandiose and the gigglers are life-size or larger, so there is a lot of bare linen to behold. Contour lines are the key to his aesthetic; he paints the way others would engrave and favors the use of scale to establish a sense of depth. But in these pictures—especially Nude Self Portrait, Nude Reclining, and Girl Squatting—the artist’s attempt to create depth using the tonal qualities of shadow and light ends up flattening his images. However, if you can stand dar enough away from them, so that the canvas is the size of a phone, they do pop nicely.