Llyn Foulkes’s Sprüth Magers exhibition consisted of thirty-seven mixed-medium paintings, the vast majority of them made since the Hammer Museum’s celebrated 2013 retrospective of his work. That survey traveled to the New Museum in New York and the Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Germany and brought broad acclaim to this distinctive Los Angeles figure, who began exhibiting with Ferus Gallery in 1959. The pieces shown at Sprüth Magers generally employ the assemblage approach familiar from his previous work, in which he brings together disparate images and found items to explore themes of American culture.
The first painting visitors encountered was Throwing in the Towel (2016), a surreal self-portrait. Mysterious symbols—a dead animal resembling a hybrid of a wolf and a deer, an LA highway sign, and a wandering astronaut—populate a rocky, desertlike landscape in which Foulkes, depicted life-size, is seen discarding a towel in a garbage can. The throwing in of the towel, one assumes, was also meant figuratively—the piece offering a defeatist opening note for the exhibition, which was titled “Old Man Blues.”
A sense of gloominess indeed pervaded the presentation. It quickly became apparent that the artist’s despair was due in no small part to the country’s recent presidential election. In Untitled “Dinghy” (2016), a black man is shown lying in a boat stamped with the logo TRUMP LIFEBOAT CO. With a United States flag draped in his lap and an empty flagpole clutched in his hand, he looks somewhat worse for wear—thrown overboard, perhaps, given the new political direction of his nation. In To Bernie, From Llyn (2016), the word ANGER is spelled out on a red fabric swatch pasted over a portrait of five military men. Trump himself is portrayed in Night Train (2016), which presents a dark landscape with a sky made from black velvet. A billboard, standing in a field of headstones, bears an image of Trump pointing at a sign for Goldman Sachs, while, nearby, a swastika is emblazoned on a wooden post.
Some of the depicted landscapes appear surprisingly unsullied, idyllic even, their blue skies and dusty hills resembling those that Foulkes has rendered throughout his career, basing them on images appropriated from old postcards and photographs. A quick look at the checklist, however, reveals that these more optimistic-seeming works were made in years prior to the presidential race and the arrival of the current, controversy-mired administration.
As is typical of Foulkes’s work, almost all the faces in the recent pieces have been disfigured. The distorted, red-painted heads in paintings like Esther, Al Fucken “Al”, and Untitled (Small Bloody Head), all 2016, create a sense of unease and recall Francis Bacon’s figuration. In Happy Days (2016), the head of Mickey Mouse is transposed with that of a young child, whereas the heads in Sailor Boy and Go Girl (both 2016) are removed from the figures entirely.
Over the course of his career, Foulkes has used his idiosyncratic visual vocabulary to express a distrust of institutions of any kind and to critique many of the sacred cows of American culture—from Walt Disney to the military to notions of heroism. Yet “Old Man Blues” suggested the artist is daunted by the challenges of the new political epoch. In this era of newspeak and “alternative facts,” one can only hope he will continue subverting the symbols propagated by reigning regimes rather than throwing in the towel.
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.