Article written by Dr. Jean-François VERNAY, editor and publisher.
Drawing upon Greco-Roman motives, Charles Billich can be described as a classicist with a quasi encyclopaedic knowledge. At times his paintings are surrealistic (1), impressionistic or even photo-realistic. His recent works are so accurate in their compositions that his poetry of details and the sense of place he captures on his canvases are to some extent reminiscent of the works of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Turning to age-old history, Charles Billich has shifted his focus on the East. His quite recent work exhibited in Xi’an (Shaanxi Province) to celebrate Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics is inspired by the Bing Ma Yong Terracotta Warriors. This cycle of paintings, where East meets West, combines ancient history with the contemporary prowess of Olympic athletes, bellicosity and artistry. Thanks to this admixture of tradition and modernity, of 21st century sportsmanship and 384BC Qin Dynasty craftsmanship, Charles has captured the essence of the Olympic spirit. Reaching far beyond all self-imposed limits, the China series celebrates human potential as well as human achievement by displaying all the qualities required to achieve any physical feat: concentration, precision, willpower and velocity. Billich is a sports artist who manages to give his subjects both mobility and nobility.
A citizen of the world, Charles “feels at home wherever [his] canvas is”, though he sometimes craves for a change of horizons to explore another civilisation, new mores and lore. He roams across the seven seas in constant search for new themes and concepts to fuel the reservoir of his creativity. A remarkable polyglot (speaking over seven languages fluently, five of which he learnt when he served his jail term), he masters English with such expressiveness and playfulness that his florid style and word coinage proclivity (which produce fine instances of Billichism) always capture a mesmerised audience while showcasing his poetic bent.
Charles Billich is no poet of the banal. In his work, you will find no evocation of the monotony of daily routine, no faces deeply lined with toil, no deserted streets and socialising premises, quite the contrary: crowd-packed horse-racing tracks, unblemished bodies, special occasions such as festive events, you name it. In a synoptic attempt to synthetise Charles Billich’s opus, we could say that his style is to visual arts what lyricism is to literature – namely life-enhancing.
In this respect, the artist’s driving force is bombast and grandeur. His paintings remain ideals of perfection (Meliora sequamur could even be his motto), dreamlike utopias, if not testimonies of glory and magnificence, which reveal a lot regarding his optimistic and even sublimating outlook on life. Like his ever oversized glasses, his flamboyant attitude, his extravaganzas, his imagination-packed pranks, he seeks to deflate the effect of our mundane life by adding majesty to our daily routine. As Charles Billich has it, “What is the fate of figurative art in a transphotographic world? To do things the camera cannot do, or can at best unconvincingly do through dark room tricks.” Some commentators, like Ooi Kok Chuen, went as far as to say that the “happy, glorious pictures” seem “to cauterise the pain [Charles experienced in his youth] and to celebrate the freedom” he once lost when jailed “on suspicion of his anti-communist leanings as interpreted in his writings for newspapers and magazines.”
Charles Billich’s pictorial production shows an impressive palette of themes and genres, from surrealist landscapes to glamorous cityscapes, from portraiture to an extensive selection of erotica, from sports and games to Oriental motives, not to mention his political interpretations of history or his religious scenes. However, whatever theme he tackles, the lyrical painter invariably celebrates life in all possible forms such as action, aesthetics, national heritage or even history. To a certain degree, his creations also enable him to face death serenely as his oeuvre will undoubtedly outlive him – Vita brevis, ars longa, as the saying goes. Life to Charles is but a game from which he wishes to come out an eternal victor. His ultimate – if not sole – challenge to life would be to defeat transience, to defeat the tempus fugit pace of our earthly world, to defeat death and the ravages of time. But then, even if Charles strives to win the day over the years, he would certainly be aware that time and tide waits for no man.
Bionote: Dr. Jean-François VERNAY, a former editor and publisher, has written commendable books on Australian culture. His latest release is The Great Australian Novel – A Panorama (Melbourne: Brolga, 2010).