In this retrospective of over 145 works, Llyn Foulkes proves himself to be more than worthy of his newfound blue-chip status. Spanning half a century, the chockablock exhibition provides a steady stream of the L.A. artist's trademark melancholy, righteous anger and self-reflective angst. Known for his cantankerous rectitude, Foulkes is a quintessential maverick, daring to promote moral values in an art world and city usually unconcerned with such things.

After a formative experience as a private in bombed-out postwar Germany, Foulkes emerged from L.A.'s Chouinard Art Institute as a formal innovator. His early mixed-medium paintings feature burned or charred found materials and deftly controlled brushwork, sometimes complemented by vintage photographs and short poetic texts that address American values. In Geography Lesson (1960-61), Foulkes presents a bombed-out landmass in the shape of the United States, formed by layering old pages of correspondence and blurring their borders with black paint. Unlike Johns's map of the same year, Foulkes's gothic USA is frighteningly dark, seeming to chart an ensuing apocalypse. A more material expression of doomsday appears in Flanders (1961-62), in which a found mound of melted white plastic extends a foot out of the frame, bursting from a ground of charred newsprint. A blurry, otherworldly photo of Death Valley is attached to the mound, and an unsettling painted version of the photo hangs below. Several smaller collage works feature photographic cabinet cards whose human figures have been blotted out by paint. These rarely seen works presage Foulkes's well-known Bloody Head paintings, which he began in the 1970s.

Several queasy pink and green monochrome Rock paintings (1964-69)—a group absent from Foulkes's 1995 retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum—depict gigantic desert formations with anthropomorphic features. Although Foulkes later disparaged these large-scale, photo-based landscapes, they are deadpan representatives of national soullessness, bleakly conveyed with a Pop immediacy. Foulkes seemed to be struggling with the flatness of these photorealist works, animating some with borders featuring the diagonal warning stripes of roadwork. In several others, he presents double images of landscapes in the style of a stereoscope. A later mountainscape, Ghost Hill (1984), includes the text of a darkly troubling poem by Dylan Thomas.

The Bloody Heads—portraits of patriarchal figures with violently blotted out faces—take Foulkes's alienation to a new level, seeming to unleash the allegorical tableaux that he began in the 1980s. Playing off the politically charged traditions of history painting, the large works of the past 30 years are vehement, heartfelt complaints about the direction of art and culture in postindustrial America. Foulkes himself poses as an impotent Superman or Lone Ranger, battling the seductive powers of Mickey Mouse, his symbol of corporate co-optation. His work lambasting Disney's all-pervasive product placement feels particularly bracing in light of the current tendency of L.A. museum administrators to court Hollywood at any cost. Foulkes himself succumbs to the lure of the devil in the self-portrait But I Thought Art Was Special (Mickey and Me), 1995, in which the Mouse appears to emerge from inside the artist's brain.

In Foulkes's tableaux, altered found materials and faux relief surfaces promote deep-focus experiences. In interviews Foulkes has spoken of wanting viewers to "walk into a picture." Without studio assistants, he can work for years on a painting, digging into wooden surfaces, building up molded forms and changing details to augment shadows. In the show's dark spaces, with subtly controlled lighting, stanchions position viewers so that Foulkes's masterpieces of disaffection, Pop (1985-90) and The Last Frontier (1997-2005), convey maximum 3-D effects. In Pop, Foulkes's abject Superman, cowed by the accoutrements of mass media, sits frozen in a sealed-off living room. The gnarly surfaces of rocks, trash heaps and withered flesh in The Last Frontier transform the L.A. landscape into a study of the ravages of time.

Foulkes uses art as a kind of purgation, destroying smooth surfaces in imagery that deeply explores human behavior. Brilliantly portraying the soul-crushing forces behind the glitter and hype of contemporary Los Angeles, Foulkes finds redemption in craft, self-analysis and poetic fervor. Unlike L.A. peers such as John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha, Foulkes maintains his energy and purpose. This exhibition shifts the city's art landscape.


PHOTO: Llyn Foulkes: Pop, 1985-90, mixed mediums with soundtrack, 84 by 123 by 3 inches; at the Hammer Museum.


"Llyn Foulkes" travels to the New Museum, New York, June 12-Sept.1, and the Museum Kurhaus Kleve, Germany, Dec. 6, 2013-Mar. 2, 2014.