Celebrating 50 Years of Artist Llyn Foulkes’ Unvarnished, Unapologetic Vision

Nancy Lackey Shaffer

For more than 50 years, the painter Llyn Foulkes has been exploring a variety of forms and themes from his home in Southern California. From post-World War II trauma to nostalgia for the Old West to his iconic mixed-media works exploring the corporatization of American life, this most versatile of artists always places his visceral emotional reaction to his place and time in the foreground—and in so doing, captures a piece of the popular zeitgeist on his canvas.


The Llyn Foulkes retrospective, which ran at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through May 19, was a comprehensive and emotionally exhausting journey through some 150 pieces that showcase five decades in a changing world, and Foulkes’s often bitter response to it. The Llyn Foulkes retrospective will be at the New Museum in New York City, June 12 through September 1, 2013.


Foulkes was born in 1934 and grew up in Yakima, Washington. After being drafted into the Army to serve in the Korean War, he spent two years in Germany, touring extensively through Europe before coming to Los Angeles in 1959 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts) on the G. I. Bill. His star rose quickly: he showed at the legendary Ferus Gallery in 1961, a year before Andy Warhol. A number of landscapes were acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum. In 1967, he represented the United States at both the Paris and Sao Paulo Art Biennials, winning the Prize for Painting in Paris. His popularity waxed and waned through the following decades, as Foulkes rebelled against what he considered to be “an art market dominated by bottom-line galleries and self-important arbiters of cool.” Foulkes is frequently described as genre-defying: cartoons, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, photo representation, Pop and mash-ups of all of these have a place in the Foulkes oeuvre.


Some of the earliest works on display at the Hammer included cartoons from the early 1950s, when a young Foulkes aspired to be a cartoonist. These drawings are reminiscent of Robert Crumb (a friend and contemporary) in both their style and silly obscenity. His paintings from the early 1960s, when Foulkes was fresh from art school and Abstract Expressionism was dominant, feature black, brown and grey pieces influenced by the scarred landscapes and burnt structures he witnessed during his time in post-World War II Europe.


“Return Here” and “In Memory of St. Vincent School” employ charred items, blackboards, sometimes newspapers and photographs that suggest relics rescued from a fire (and show Foulkes’s early adoption of found objects to augment his paintings). “Ode to Muddie” is a ghostly triptych, with an amorphous brown figure, possibly a body bag, flanked by two skeletal forms rendered in hasty black strokes on pale panels. These pieces are mysterious and haunting, capturing the desolation, confusion and despair that remain long after the battle has been waged.


The next gallery is devoted to Foulkes’s famous landscapes of the 1960s. Many of his works from this time mimic postcards of the Old West, and feature famous landmarks (Mt. Hood, Death Valley) or emblems of an America that has been lost. The cow and pig imagery, in particular, might harken back to Foulkes’ agricultural roots. This era also saw him playing with photo representation, texture and color as well as further experimentation with found objects to create depth.


His rock paintings—often inspired by the craggy landscape surrounding Eagle Rock and Chatsworth—are both a celebration of the Southern California natural environment and an exploration of new techniques. The monochromatic “Happy Rock,” for example, is rendered entirely in shades of blue, but with every shade and permutation of the color examined. Applying the paint with rags, Foulkes achieved a very realistic rock-like texture, and the enormity of many of these pieces allows the viewer to see, as Foulkes often did, how the shapes, bends and shadows of the rocks often suggest human figures (1969’s “Portrait of Leo Gorcey,” acquired by the Whitney, seems to have human corpses in it). So simple, so fascinating, with such mastery of the canvas: it’s easy to see how these rock formations have become iconic.

Ever the maverick, Foulkes was not content to stay with this format, however popular. While he would reference his rock paintings in future pieces, he took a dramatic turn with his “Bloody Heads” series—although “obscured heads” might be a better descriptor. Portraits with faces obstructed by bright red, blood-like strokes or symbolic objects (a doctor’s head, for example, has an X-ray superimposed upon his face, while a geometry teacher has a triangle) are jarring in their juxtaposition of the macabre with the mundane. In this series, one can also see some of the techniques Foulkes would employ (to greater effect) in later works. Arms and neckties might leave the confines of the frame, and distress over corporate development—of the natural world, and the people in it—is not-so-subtly hinted.


Starting in the 1990s and up through the present, Foulkes’ preoccupation with found objects, the use of space and worrisome corporate encroachment would finally collide to create some of his most arresting works, which were the highlight of the Hammer retrospective. Here are displayed his numerous Mickey Mouse-as-villain tableaux. Disney cartoonist Ward Kimball, once Foulkes’ father-in-law, gave the artist a copy of the Mickey Mouse Club manual, which troubled him for its insidious, brainwashing aspect. Text from this manual shows up in more than a few paintings, and Disney’s most enduring symbol is a sinister stand in for the myriad ways corporatization has robbed Southern California of its natural splendors, its history and the independent thought of its denizens, while indoctrinating children in a culture of blind obedience and violence.


The darkness and rage in these recent works is palpable, and his use of three-dimensional space is breathtaking. In “O’Pablo” (1983) for example: a painted rock (reminiscent of his earlier rock paintings) rises up from the canvas in relief, not a single line or shade out of place. “The Lost Frontier” (begun in 1997, and completed in 2005) is like a diorama, and a bleak one at that: just eight inches deep, it suggests a wide vista of loss and displacement, where a vast wasteland with a freeway running through is populated by the figure of a Native American, a mummified cat (symbolic for a mountain lion), and an abandoned television. We see Foulkes himself at the foreground, staring into the TV, and in the middle of it all, small but dominant, is a rifle-wielding figure of a pioneer woman, her own head replaced by Mickey Mouse. There’s catharsis in “Deliverance” (2007) where the outline of a pistol-wielding Foulkes has shot the dreaded Mouse, but one senses sadness more than triumph.


The retrospective wrapped up with a film (with audio, which can be heard using headphones) of Foulkes playing The Machine, an instrument made from horns, bells and drums that the artist—also a musician—plays as a one-man band, and a carefully lit room containing 1990’s “POP.” An enormous installation at over 10 feet wide and three inches deep, “POP” took Foulkes five years to complete. An enfeebled Superman (we see his “S” peaking out beneath his shirt) sits in an armchair and stares hypnotically into a TV set, his daughter resting her hand on his arm while his headphone-wearing son looks on, holding a notebook inscribed with text from the Mickey Mouse Club handbook. It’s a masterpiece of mixed media, employing upholstery and clothing, and entering the dark space to see it is dramatic, but “POP” lacks the impact and raw emotion of many of the works that come before it.


 The darkness and anger of his most recent works, while transmitted through a very personal lens, reflect the pervasive pessimism of our current age, and widespread disgust with the corporate takeover of modern life; Foulkes and the protesters of the Occupied Movement have much in common. Truly, he brings great power to these angst-driven pieces. And yet, what’s lost is any sense of mystery. Those rock formations, with their ability to change shape and conjure images the longer you look at them, the somber and mysterious scribbles on the side panels of his post-World War II-inspired triptychs, hold a fascination and depth that his raging against Disney do not.


Still, it’s inspiring to see an artist who so fearlessly lays his own soul bare, without hiding his genuine point of view behind enigmatic symbolism or cool objectivity. Foulkes is never detached—indeed, he himself is a subject in several works. Perhaps this willingness to share his unvarnished, unapologetic vision explains his endurance as a relevant and influential artist for more than half a century. At a robust 78, this cantankerous renegade will no doubt carry on, aiming his artistic arsenal at The Man and letting us watch.


The Llyn Foulkes retrospective will be at the New Museum in New York City, June 12 through September 1, 2013.


Author Bio:

Nancy Lackey Shaffer is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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