Richard Billingham took time out from preparations for the Turner Prize to discuss how he moved from an aspiring cash-strapped artist living in the heart of the Black Country to a celebrated artist of international acclaim.
Richard Billingham is anything but a stereotypical 'young Brit artist' of the 90s. Educated at Sunderland and based in the Midlands he loathes sensationalism, has no dealings with image consultants and discusses his work in the same matter-of-fact way that he points the camera lens. His candid portraits of the stark interior of his family's flat in the West Midlands town of Cradley Heath won him almost overnight success, rocketing him and his family to celebrity status. These early images reveal the private trials of Billingham family life Dad's alcoholism, Mum's obsessive smoking and his brother Jason's frustrations hammered out on the Playstation.
In one sense, Billingham's success seems a result of fortunate timing. In the 90s, on the back of a recession, many dealers and critics were urgently trying to encourage wider audiences for contemporary art, aiming to dislodge the popular belief that art was a highbrow or obscurest pastime for a small wealthy elite. Billingham's work fitted their strategy perfectly, his images were readily understandable to millions, made no heavy intellectual or conceptual demands on the viewer but simply presented the bald facts of life's daily struggle with delicious directness. The images were published in 1996 as a book called Ray's a Laugh. This led to Fishtank, a fifty-minute film shown on Channel 4 in 1998, that revealed the grim reality of daily life chez-Billingham in all its unscripted desperation. Billingham sees his work not as a social comment but in the more traditional aesthetic terms of image making: "I guess I've always tried to make a good picture, a beautiful picture that's all' I mean I didn't notice all the stains on the walls or anything I was just trying to make a picture of something". His most recent series of images depict scenes from across the world including Greece and Pakistan. Many of them are beautiful ethereal landscapes capturing one-off moments of light, atmosphere or pattern in the natural world: "You see something that moves you and you take a picture of it. A lot of the time it doesn't work out the way you think it will' but if there's any spirit there in what you take then sometimes it comes out".
After being rejected by sixteen art colleges, Billingham was eventually accepted on the degree course at the University of Sunderland a disappointing waste of three years in his view: "The only thing I learnt was the ability to criticise my own work and I didn't even learn that in any great depth. I learnt more on my foundation course (at Bournville) in one year than I learnt in Sunderland".
Leaving college dispirited, he returned to the Midlands where he took a job at Kwik Save: "I thought while I'm working at Kwik Save I'll make my own work' I found it quite difficult to paint in rented accommodation and I couldn't afford a studio, so I mostly took photographs of my family' after two years I thought I would apply to the Royal College and Goldsmith's to do an MA". Just as Billingham was applying, Ray's a Laugh was published: "When I turned up at my interview I just put the book on the table as my portfolio and they accepted me". Billingham, his views of education still tainted by Sunderland, decided not to accept the place. "When I had the book published I was invited to lots of dinner parties, openings and such like. I went down to London to these events and realised that I learnt more from talking to the people in the art world than I could ever learn from an art course." At the same time Anthony Reynolds picked up on Billingham and became his gallerist as well as guide and inspiration.
Billingham's strength, with the support of Reynolds and others, has been in his ability to change his focus and subject matter rather than bowing to commercial pressures and becoming bound or grounded by one successful idea. He still harbours an urge to paint, something he hopes to pursue during a forthcoming residency in Dublin with IMMA and as Sargant Fellow at the British School in Rome next year.
Painting, film or photography, truth is Billingham's real material: "It's your work that matters; you haven't got to bother what people think. You've just got to concentrate on your work and not be distracted, if you've got good work then you'll get recognised sooner or later, you just will, but you have to have strength in your own convictions".
is an artist and writer based in Birmingham.
First published: a-n Magazine December 2001 as 'Cradley's hero'
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