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Self Portrait As Superman: Llyn Foulkes at the Hammer Museum

Llyn Foulkes, "Rose Hill"

Llyn Foulkes
February 3, 2013 – May 18, 2013
The Hammer Museum

Llyn Foulkes is a career retrospective, following the Los Angeles-born-and-based artist’s steps from art school in the early 1950s through to the present time. In the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, Hammer Museum Director Ann Philbin writes:

“This exhibition reveals the deeply committed and obsessive unconventionality of Foulkes’s vision and the extraordinary innovations of his practice. Foulkes is truly an artist’s artist, one who may not be well known to the public but who is widely respected in the contemporary art community.”

Indeed, Llyn Foulkes has had several periods of obscurity following relative fame, causing visitors to whisper behind their programs, “A retrospective on whom? How come we’ve never heard of him if he’s so famous?” (After all, we are in LA. Who is anyone who hasn’t made the tabloids, really?) A Hammer museum employee retorts: “He’s been discovered a dozen times. This time we’re going to make it stick.”

The exhibition opens with entry into a small room displaying Foulkes’ early works, mostly on paper. Among the artifacts are rough sketches of the artist and his friends at school, satirical comics, and a small painting that was directly inspired by Salvador Dalí. While the museum makes little note of his drawings beyond commenting on the artist’s innate draftsmanship skills, I found his comics to be fascinating. They were reminiscent of the dailies from the 1940s and 50s, such as Bud Fisher’s Mutt And Jeff comic strip or Billy de Beck’s bawdy Barney Google series – comics that inspired the equally unconventional, socially-charged work of Robert Crumb. Dalí, whom Foulkes learned about through a book stolen from his school library (he still has it), is not to be discounted, however. The themes of desolate landscapes, mutation of limbs, and surreal interactions between man and nature have shown themselves in Foulkes’ work ever after his discovery of his eccentric predecessor.

After he finished school, Foulkes began to experiment with incorporating found objects into his work. The artworks of this period are nearly colorless, making use of dark charred woods, grimy plastics, and chalkboard tableaux. Many of these works are monuments to his memories, like grim, heavy, awkwardly -shaped scrapbooks. Often they feature writing that dedicates a particular work to someone or explains what the work is a monument to. This practice would carry on into the work that gained him notoriety in the mid-1960s with his “postcard” series.

In the 1960s Foulkes employed at length a method of painting in which he used a rag to dab his oils onto canvases and panels. This unorthodox technique allowed him to create a texture well-suited to craggy rocks and landscapes as well as animal skin. He   became famous for his rock paintings, depicting in pastel monochrome stark landscapes with real or imagined rock formations from the California wilderness. Foulkes’ young adulthood was marked by the frenzied construction of highways and superhighways that cut through that California wilderness, and his most striking works reference this phenomenon with aggressive “road hazard” patterns that juxtapose multiple smaller rock images in a single painting. He showed these works along with rock formations framed in smooth color bands that declared “POSTCARD” at the top of the paintings, with or without writing sprawled across them. These depictions of landscape and travel were the works that first put him, so to speak, on the map.

By the 1970s, however, Foulkes had become disenchanted with these works, considering them to be flat and formulaic. While visiting a friend who worked in a morgue, he was shocked to witness a corpse whose scalp had been partially cut back for special autopsy, and he repeated this image in several variations for portraits across the next decade. He also returned to three-dimensionality in his works, framing his portraits in dingy, textural frames and constructing body parts that would begin as flat parts of a portrait and extend out of the frame. With his more visceral works he revealed a growing frustration with the culture he was surrounded by – in the art world as well as in the greater spectrum of current events. He also took up a cross against the Disney brand after he was gifted a copy of the original Disney Club manual from the 1940s. As a father, he feared that Disney intended to brainwash popular culture against the reality of itself. In a grimly assertive contrast to Disney’s slick, happy propaganda, Foulkes features Mickey Mouse in many a heavy, grimy artwork, characterizing him as the indolent spectator of macabre Wild West-style melodramas that depict the erasure of heritage.

Installation viewLlyn Foulkes

Foulkes’ most current work runs in this vein, with startling reliefs created with wood, carpeting and other fabrics, and heavy oil and acrylic build up. It seems obsessed with expressing disillusionment, both in the frenzied proliferation in texture as well as in the content. Next door to the exhibition is a small theater which hosts the sounds of Foulkes’ “Machine” a multi-instrument contraption that allows the artist to play as a one-man band. The sounds that emit from behind the heavy curtains are dissonant and wailing. Llyn Foulkes is a retrospective not just of an artist, but of a man not content to be led by the tide of popular opinion. It is a visual testament to a man bound by the albatross of honesty.

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