Pictorial Art Review
The Artist Who Smells a Rat
The Hammer Museum showcases the clever and corrosive work of Llyn Foulkes.
Reviewed by Michael Berick
Two keys to Llyn Foulkes’s art can be found on placards in the first gallery of his current Hammer Museum retrospective. One placard notes that a 10-year-old Foulkes wanted to become a Disney cartoonist, while another placard reveals that his life changed when he discovered Salvador Dali’s art at 17.
Walt Disney’s all-American Pop and Dali’s dark yet playful Surrealism definitely serve as major guideposts to Foulkes’s art. Not only do cartoon images and pop culture references populate his work (a Mickey Mouse surrogate nicknamed Mickey Rat is a reoccurring Foulkes character), but the long-time Southern California resident also uses images of Disney and Dali in his pieces. Visually, his art also holds a strong Surrealist touch in the way that it juxtaposes real-life images with dream-life images.
This Disney-meets-Dali description might be catchy; however, it oversimplifies Foulkes’s art. The use of Disney and cartoon characters more often disparages American culture rather than celebrates it, while Surrealism is just one of a number of modernist styles Foulkes absorbs and adapts into his work.
Foulkes’s early works from the late 1950s and early ’60s, as displayed in this mainly chronologically organized exhibit, is heavily based in construction and collage, conveying a sense that he physically handcrafted his art out of wood and other found materials. Some of works, composed with rows of numbers or images, suggest a darker variation of the Pop Art Jasper Johns was doing in New York.
One especially powerful creation, “In Memory of St. Vincent School” (1960), is basically a charred school chalkboard and chair, but evokes a mysterious quality as the viewer imagine how and why these things got burned and why a swastika is etched into the blackboard (although the placard suggests that it is Foulkes’s reaction to the post–World War II destruction he saw in Germany).
What is clearly evident in this exhibit is that Foulkes explored a number of styles, and has had the artistic skills to handle whatever he tried. The ’60s found him taking a lighter, brighter Pop art approach as demonstrated in the set of postcard-inspired works and animal images that sit somewhere between ad art and homage. Besides showing his skills in representational art, these pieces (particularly the one of a large cow and another of a huge pig) transcend their surface humor to skewer American consumerist culture.
During this time, he mined a number of rock-formations paintings, which held realistic (their photographic-like rendering) and non-realistic qualities (they were done in various monochromatic hues). Foulkes’s playful way of manipulating images recalls Warhol and Rauschenberg, as well as possibly influenced Mark Tansey’s paintings.
The mercurial Foulkes turned to a more Expressionist style with “Bloody Head” series that occupied much of his ’70s output. These bold, often grotesque “portraits” suggest The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as rendered by John Baldessari. A foreign object obscures the faces (sometimes as recognizable as Spiro Agnew’s) while frequently conveying very violent undercurrents. In another instance of Foulkes’s collision of high and low art, his inspiration for this series came after a mortuary trip where a corpse’s severed head made him think of Moe from The Three Stooges.
Foulkes’s interests in collage and found objects surface regularly in his “Bloody Head” pieces and it leads to his next breakthrough piece, 1977’s “Portrait in A Flat.” Foulkes builds up his “Bloody Head” concept by adding on real hair, a real-looking dollar bill, and the eye-catching touch of having an arm dangle outside of the wooden frame. This portrait/collage hybrid combines Realism and Surrealism with a touch of Expressionism.
This work serves as a stepping-stone for Foulkes’s next phase, his narrative tableaux paintings and the exhibit showcases several that he unveiled in 1983. These large-scale works (“Made in Hollywood,” “Last Outpost,” “O’ Pablo,” and “One for the Money”) are remarkable for their impressive construction (built-out frames and three-dimensionality), vivid composition, and imaginative mixing of mediums (such as real objects, cartoon drawing, and trompe l’oeil. “Made in Hollywood,” for example, contains a sample for the Mickey Mouse Club Handbook, which Foulkes felt was brainwashing kids into how to think.
While filled with iconic American images, these creations offer a rather harsh critique of American culture: the moral corruption found in Hollywood, the art world, and corporate America. He continues these themes through the ’80s and into the ’90s on smaller scale pieces, like 1985’s “The Golden Ruler” (where the obscured face of Ronald Reagan is framed in a pearly white window frame that suggests “it’s a new morning in America”) and 1991’s savage “Double Trouble” (featuring a pistol-wielding man with a baby fetus in his mouth).
1991 stands out as artistically fertile time for Foulkes, even if his prevailing mood seems to be disgust and dismay. Superman stars in two of his superb 1991 pieces in this show. “Day Dream” features a colorless Superman reading a bedtime story to a boy who dreams of a real gun set in a cottony cloud, while in “Where Did I Go Wrong?” another powerless Clark Kent sits staring at a newspaper blaring a “War!” headline.
Foulkes’s pessimism is made more personal in “The Rape of the Angels,” where a forlorn Foulkes looks on, unable to stop an LA city planner and “Mickey Rat” map out the city’s future. Even the glimmer of optimism in “New Renaissance” (where a Foulkes-ish painter looks out at a pretty, tranquil ocean horizon) is balanced by a Christ-like figure crucified on a Santa Monica telephone pole.
His dystopian view of modern America is expressed magnificently in several other large-scale works. His monumental installation “Pop,” which was the centerpiece of MOCA’s 1992 Helter Skelter show, has its own room of honor at the Hammer—and deservedly so. In this tableau, he twists the idea of the nuclear family portrait on several levels. A TV-watching dad (a Foulkes surrogate) is so stressed out that his eyes are popping out his head. His young daughter can’t comfort him, and his elder son is tuned in to his Walkman while reading a notebook that references the Foulkes-despised Mickey Mouse Handbook. Visual references to Superman, baseball, and Diet Coke also serve to underscore this all-American scene, while a small wall calendar bears the image of the Hiroshima cloud and the date of its denotation.
Foulkes amplifies these already powerful images by adding multimedia elements—a song (that he composed) plays in the background, the living room’s lamp illuminates—which makes this diorama’s dire scene feel all the more real. Another epic creation (also with its own viewing space) is “Lost Frontier,” which Foulkes created from 1997 through 2005. This wall-sized work depicts a desolate America tableau (a bleak, craggy landscape populated with a gun-toting, cross-dressing Mickey, a shriveled corpse, and a microwave) rendered with Foulkes’s expert technical skills, which magically enhances the painting’s 3-D qualities.
In his famous painting “The Corporate Kiss” (2001), Mickey gives Foulkes a big smooch; however, the artist exacts his revenge in “Deliverance” (2004–07), where a Foulkes-like figure guns down Mickey Rat, signaling an end to this artist-Mickey relationship. The feeling of summation also surfaces in several other latter-days works. In 2004–05’s “In My Last Chance,” Foulkes, with his signature shot of dark humor and air of despair, offers final words of warning, as a skeletal buzzard tells the Lone Ranger: “This is your last chance. You blow it this time, it’s curtains.”
Although his art might deal with doom and gloom, Foulkes has created an exciting body of work that draws upon an impressive array of artistic styles and techniques to make incisive commentaries about contemporary culture.
April 21, 2013
Deliverance, 2007. Mixed mediums. 72 x 84 in. (182.9 x 213.4 cm). Private collection. Photo by Randel Urbauer.