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Art People: Tom Billings in bad taste

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Tom Billings is hunkered down in his "terrorist art bunker," next to his Lay Away Visual Arts Gallery, in the basement of Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building. He's wearing a T-shirt stamped with the "signature" he uses on all his works (and which is tattooed on his left arm): a TV set with a skull inside. Billings reaches into his pocket and produces a crumpled Bazooka Joe bubble-gum comic. In the comic, Joe dreams he's rooming with Picasso. "I paint and I paint and yet my work seems to get worse," Pablo tells Joe. Joe says, "That isn't true. Your work is exactly the same as it's always been. . . . It's your taste that's improving!"

Billings is determined not to fall prey to good taste. Take the unfinished "found" paint-by-numbers version of "The Last Supper," plastered with a sticker that says Caution Workmen Above. Or the series of desecrated pope pictures; in some, the pope is saying "unspeakable things," comic-book fashion. This is an artist who's been mingling the sacred and scatological for years, and whose most recognizable image may be that of a snarling Doberman labeled Beware of God.

Depending on who you talk to, Billings is either (a) sick; (b) a prankster; (c) a genius; or (d) none of the above.

To decide for yourself, you have two options this month: the somewhat safe and the seriously subversive. Billings's angst-ridden "Paint Can Masks" (faces painted on the backs of metal house-paint ads) and "Boat Head Masks" (faces painted on fiberglass hull pieces) are on view at Eastwick Gallery. Billings teams up with younger brother Rob, a painter and silversmith, for "The Billings Brothers' New World Conquest," featuring installations and "pre-existing paintings found in the garbage," which opens at Oskar Friedl Gallery today. "Tom is one of the truest and purest spirits in the urban guerrilla area, and his work's not building on any art that has been done before," says Friedl, also a co-owner of Lay Away Visual Arts. "Once a punk, always a punk."

It's no accident that the "Billings brothers" moniker has an outlaw ring to it. The boys were born in East Chicago, Indiana, and brought up in Gary, Calumet City, and Hoffman Estates. Their dad, now retired, was a commercial artist for Leo Burnett; their mom used to teach painting. Tom--who never had any formal art training--says they were the kind of kids who ditched Sunday school to watch cartoons, and who vandalized construction sites.

It was while exploring a subdivision building site, circa 1980, that Tom's life took a turn--for better and for worse: He tripped (physically) and got a stake impaled in his skull. He had to have 400 stitches and reconstructive surgery. "I was dysfunctional," he says. "I became a rebel street artist because I couldn't do anything else and didn't want to do anything else."

Billings has been a Wicker Park art fixture ("just like a lamp") since 1982. His crude, loopy, cartoonish work seems to be perennially on view at area galleries, nightclubs, and coffeehouses. He's a World Tattoo "Elvis Show" veteran. He's painted murals at Crobar, Danny's, and Prop Theatre (that's his rhino), and has designed theater sets, newspaper illustrations, advertising logos, chapbook covers, and an early Urge Overkill EP cover.

Last summer's Billings brothers exhibit at Oskar Friedl was called "Sibling Rivalry" and featured a live masked wrestling match between Tom and Rob at the opening-night party. Tom won. "Rob was disqualified when he grabbed my nuts," he explains. The show featured works fashioned from Burger King burgers under Plexiglas, a chewed-gum-covered Chia pet, and obscenely graffitied grade-school desks.

This year's show, which is more pointedly political, includes mixed-media paintings and constructions. Portraits of familiar American icons including Walt Disney and Christopher Columbus are defaced with standard Billings fetishes: penises, flags, stickers reading Crafted with Pride in the U.S.A., graffitied "fuck you"s, and images appropriated from comics and porn.

One piece of text, lifted from a New Art Examiner article, appears on a number of paintings, including one entitled "My Best Work." "I think it is central to America's problems as a civilization that we accept sloppiness and permit our workers to make crummy things and to be on drugs while they are making them."

"We're not gonna stand behind our pieces and say they're politically correct or incorrect," says Tom Billings. "Politically correct is just another label, and labels are for cocksuckers."

"Masks," by Tom Billings, continues at Eastwick Gallery, 245 W. North, through June 25. Call 440-2322.

"The Billings Brothers' New World Conquest" opens at Oskar Friedl Gallery, 750 N. Orleans, today with a free party from 5 to 8. The show is up through July 14. Call 337-7550.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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