How do you define Britishness? Charlie Billingham’s paintings, imbued with humor and history, could be a good start. Billingham’s work plays on a reinvention of a representation of English aesthetics. In many ways Billingham is a classic painter—concerned with the medium’s legacy and the history of representation in a wider sense. Yet there are conceptual nuances here that also fit well into the history of appropriation. Instead of drawing from contemporary pop culture, however, the artist has made his name with paintings that emerge from 18th- and 19th-century British satirical illustration.
Billingham’s studio is in an industrial nook of London in South Bermondsey. The space, which he recently bought, is in an area surrounded by warehouses and ageing industrial structures. Inside his studio there are elements that make it feel surprisingly domestic, mostly the inherited Victorian pine furniture from his parents (his mother restores oil paintings and his father is a former furniture maker). The rest is a classic, messy white cube filled with work in progress and large canvases in various stages of completion.
A bit like Downton Abbey, his work has resonated strongly with those stateside. He has done well with London-NYC gallery Henry Kinman in recent years at NADA in Miami Beach and in NYC, and he has had popular shows with Brand New Gallery in Milan and OHWOW in Los Angeles. (Next year, he is showing with OHWOW at Zona MACO in Mexico City and at The Armory Show in New York.) Britishness is definitely part of his motivation—“Yes absolutely,” he says, when asked if Britishness is part of his motivation. “I think being British is probably part of the reason for wanting to look into that heritage and that history.”
Billingham’s work focuses on a very particular part of Regency satirical imagery. “Generally, I don’t look at artworks that go much beyond the Regency period [1830-1837]. A few around William IV [reigned 1830-1837], but I’m not particularly interested in Victorian prints,” says the artist. “I take sections of prints by Gillray, Cruikshank, Rowlandson, and some of their lesser known contemporaries, and I look through books and prints and find bits that I like and crop those sections and use them as a starting point to make a painting.”
The humor in these images isn’t fixed on any political resonance from the time. “I’m interested in these very politicised images and the way in which the politics becomes obsolete over time. I’m also interested in trying to strip away the politics and just taking physical elements of the prints which distill some of the emotion and intention behind the original drawing.”
The artist closes in on bodily parts—in particular arses and bellies. Here the joke is blown up and coloured in. “These body parts, when drawn by those [historical] artists, have for me an interesting relationship to painting—the fattiness of painting and the medium of paint and the way it’s applied,” he explains. Here the figurative is reduced to a more abstract form of narrative. It is interesting that the original works he draws from often explore ideas of greed and excess—something which perhaps rings even truer today. His color palette is often imbued with pastely, saccharine colours—Guston-like flesh tones. These are fatty paintings.
Billingham largely works with oil, mostly on linen but sometimes on primed polyester for its smooth surface. Yet he also explores other mediums. He translates watercolors into tapestries displayed on the floor, which he makes in Belgium just outside of Ghent. He’s made sculptural pieces before, including painted screens and a table, which sits in his studio, with a painting embedded in it. His new body of work involves further sculptural elements. He is currently working with casts made from saxophones purchased on Ebay.
“To me, they are the best instrument visually to sum up improvisation,” he notes. “I’ve been crushing them. There’s a building across the road where they have hydraulic presses. The company’s been going since the 1880s and it’s been there since the 1930s. The company is becoming obsolete. It can put 100 tons of pressure onto a relatively small object.” Billingham has been pressing his saxophones down until they are almost flat, at 6-10mm (less than half an inch) and casting them, experimenting in materials. “I’m still in the process, but they should hopefully look exactly like paintings. Then I’ll use the panels as painting supports.”
Billingham draws inspiration directly from his materials’ histories, saying, “They’re about free jazz. I haven’t talked about it before particularly because the works are still in progress, but there’s been a narrative playing around in my head about [jazz saxophonist] Albert Ayler who committed suicide in 1970. The utopian ideas of free jazz become a bit obsolete and a bit faded.” Improvisation is something he sees as central in the process of painting. “It’s not free improvisation, because there are boundaries and structures, but it’s much more similar to the improvisation around a melody. There’s all sorts of choices I can make.” Billingham often works in series—repeating in different colors his images of stomachs and bums. “There’s repetition and also difference, in the same way that there might be a dozen or two dozen versions of ‘My Funny Valentine.’”
Billingham only completed his postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy Schools in 2013, but his work is resonating with collectors for good reason. While the galleries are flooded by process-led abstraction, figurative elements feel increasingly fresh. The historical aspects and appropriation—a kind of post-modern, off-modern, meta-modern step back to go forward—is part of why the pieces feel fresh.
Portrait and studio shots by Elliot Kennedy for Artsy.