Billy Childish is, as he proudly announces, “by far the most prolific painter, poet, and songwriter of his generation”. He’s not kidding. Since 1979, this out-and-proud amateur has produced 100 albums, 40 volumes of poetry, 2,000-plus paintings, six novels and seven films.
Despite this unstoppable flow of work, 52-year-old Childish (real name Steven John Hamper) has happily positioned himself on the cultural margins. His explicitness and emotional openness – he has written widely about his sexual abuse as a child and indeed put a photograph of his abuser on the cover of one of his records – does not make him to everyone’s taste.
He was also a founding member of the Stuckists, that noisy group who, unfashionably for the late 1990s-early 2000s, insisted that conceptual art was bunk and that, as Childish put it, “artists who don’t paint aren’t artists”.
But whether he likes it or not, his outsiderness is beginning to change. Musicians as varied as Kurt Cobain and Kylie have name-checked him, his influence on the Young British Artists is widely acknowledged, and the music, pictures and books keep coming.
For years, if he was known at all, it was as the former boyfriend of Tracey Emin (yes, his name was one of those stitched on to her tent that went up in smoke in an art warehouse fire). This link is repeatedly trotted out (as I am doing here). But as he said in 2008: “My relationship with Tracey Emin finished in 1987 – 21 years ago, to be exact. While I like and respect Tracey, and wish her well, the relationship is not significant in respect of my current life, and therefore I choose not to discuss it.”
He is also a more interesting artist than her. Some strands of his painting have remained remarkably consistent and his work is that of the bastard child of Munch and Van Gogh, painters he became interested in at St Martin’s School of Art (before he was expelled for ‘unruly behaviour’). Many include the hatted, suited and moustachioed figure of Childish himself.
He is also the lead character in his latest show, Me, Picasso and Other Ordinary Kings of Cuntdom (the title comes from one of his poems), at the L-13 Light Industrial Workshop gallery in Clerkenwell, London. The exhibition is of his latest watercolours and rough woodcuts – both characteristically expressionist – all modestly sized. They are disarming images: a couple and a child skating, a figure by the prow of a sailing boat, a man descending a rock face like some tweedy character from a John Buchan novel.
But then you come across a figure stretched out dead in the snow, cause and reason unexplained, and it is clear that Childish has not succumbed to a bout of mawkishness but remains, distinctively, his own man.