Object Man: On Llyn Foulkes at the Hammer

May 5, 2013   •   By Brian Kim Stefans

On view at the Hammer Museum through May 19, 2013.

IT’S A STRANGE BIT of irony that two of Llyn Foulkes’s major deities — they each appear in important portraits at the artist’s current retrospective at the Hammer Museum — are both virtuosic illusionists: Salvador Dali and Walt Disney. By “deities” I don’t mean heroes. While as a young man Foulkes found inspiration in imitating Dali’s morphological, optical illusions (his 1953 painting Images of Perception attempts a classic Dali effect, that of having figures in the foreground outline some patch of sky or earth that transforms absence into presence, the negative space forming a head in profile or the bust of Robespierre), he was aghast at what he saw as the wholesale conformity inflicted by Disney and, using his paintings as a bully pulpit, he’s made this opinion widely known.

Certainly Llyn Foulkes is no illusionist, partly by character — if anything, he seems to want to take the piss out of things, much like George Carlin, whom he resembles in his one-man band performances, or George Grosz, whose earthy Weimar-era satires avoided the clever new forms of mimesis current in French art in the 1920s — and partly because he isn’t, when it comes to human forms, particularly virtuosic. Even in the early drawings (at least the few on display here) in which Foulkes is exercising his skills as a cartoonist, one doesn’t get the sense that he had a natural gift for caricature, the indexical, evocative or erotic line, or the three or four brushstrokes that seem, in the hands of, say, Picasso, to form a dove or a child’s visage. What this means is that Foulkes is rarely, and perhaps has never been, able to be entirely absent from his work; his personality lies, gritty and insistent as a clump of clay or howling like a struck banshee, in everything he does. There is rarely that “wow” moment in which the viewer is asked to look past the materials of art to revel in the virtual — in color, in form, in line — for its own sake. But that, to me, is why Llyn Foulkes is a great show and in some ways a tonic to the uninspired conceptualism, ironic commercialism and eyewink cuteism that seems endemic in so many corners of contemporary art.

This exhibition reads like a novel in chapters that, for the sake of convenience, we can call decades. The early 1960s find Foulkes — raised and largely educated in Washington before being drafted and serving two years in a war-scarred Germany — in a sort of gothic, or maybe Anselm Kiefer-ish, phase. Much of this work is dark; it involves a lot of scratching and clawing, and hints at New York School abstraction and some Jasper Johns-esque play with numbers and serial imagery. The mesmerizing Flanders (1961-62) is a huge glob of found plastic exploding from the frame with a nearly abstract photograph of Eagle Rock nestled in it (a painting of that same photograph is suspended below), suggesting some relation between the abject and ethereal that is decidedly unresolved. Other works, like In Memory of St. Vincent School (1960) — a huge chalkboard he found in the wreck of a burnt school in which he scratched a swastika — suggest his fellow assemblage artists of Los Angeles. But it is also this period that finds his most conventionally beautiful work, if (by the early 1960s) we consider Abstract Expressionism in the manner of Franz Kline and William de Kooning "conventional." Ode to Muddie (1962) is one of the most impressive: a large central figure — what appears to be a mauled flannel shirt — emerges out of inky blackness, while two white vertical rectangles, one on each side, seem to evoke emaciated human bodies as if splashed, Michaux-style, out of India ink. Foulkes received some ecstatic early notice — “an image conjurer of the first magnitude and any tribe in need of strong magic would do well to sign him up immediately” crowed Doug McClellan in Artforum — but not for the first time would success harbinger a dramatic change in his style. Assemblage disappeared from Foulkes’s vocabulary for a decade or so after this and such freewheeling work with the brush would never return.

Lightness finally hits with his first Pop-inspired images, such as the haunting series of cows and pigs from 1963 as well as his first work using the genre of the postcard as a design template. The palette moves toward pastels, while the technique begins to resemble watercolor. It’s a little difficult to discern what Foulkes’s investment in the images of cows and pigs exactly was: they are largely painted in almost clinical fashion, from the side and in their entirety, waiting for the markings of the butcher to map their prime cuts (in some cases, these markings are included). The animals are innocent, mute (they’re often painted without eyes or mouths) and ready for subjection. Chart (1963) involves three identical bulls, the topmost with no butcher lines, the final two with the full array; the entire left hand of the panel is occupied with horizontal gray lines that resemble the obscured key describing the butcher’s art. A later “Postcard” painting is similar, but instead of bulls we have a human body in crucifixion pose, echoing if anything Francis Bacon’s Painting of 1946, which depicts an eviscerated animal carcass suspended behind a man whose head is obscured by an umbrella.

Most disarming, perhaps, is that Foulkes uses his famous “rag technique” — in which he soaks a rag in paint and applies it to canvas to get a distinctive marbling effect, invented for his images of natural rock formations — to paint his animals. One of his paintings titled Cow is identifiable as such only because of a second smaller canvas below it with the word “COW” painted on it — it could just as well have stated “STONE.” One gets an uncanny feeling that Foulkes’s view on animate matter — such as the warm, breathing, mooing or oinking stuff we call farm animals — is that it is really just a small step up from the inert stuff we call stone, dust, and air. Letter to Phil Hefferton (1964), a five panel cartoon made up largely of images of stump legs, suggests to me a continuum between Foulkes’s depictions of humans as largely severed from their conventional forms of agency and the rock formations that brood with a sort of panpsychic, perhaps political, power.

Llyn Foulkes. Cow, 1963. Oil on canvas.
Photo by Jason Dewey.

As paintings, the rock formations did indeed have power: they are the first set of images that insured Foulkes a regular income as a painter (outside of his teaching at UCLA, of course), but perhaps for the wrong reasons. As the show’s curator Ali Subotnick writes in the exhibition catalogue, despite critical acclaim, Foulkes “grew dismayed at himself for becoming formulaic […] he felt he had lost his soul.” A divorce and new marriage, therapy and a renewed interest in making music — he formed the comical Rubber Band in 1973 with whom he appeared on The Tonight Show while continuing to work on his fantastic hybrid one-man-band instrument, the Machine, on which he performed recently at the Hammer — helped him out of his jam. However, this propensity for sudden stylistic breaks might have cost him the superstar renown some of his Los Angeles Pop art peers, not quite as allergic to formula (oh, you know who I mean), eventually acquired.

Depictions of humans almost played no role in Foulkes’s paintings to this point, but that all changed with the inauguration of his famous “Bloody Head” series in the early 1970s. The story goes that Foulkes’s friend showed him pictures from an autopsy in which the scalp of the deceased man hung over his face. Foulkes’s first reaction, apparently, was laughter (it reminded him of Moe from The Three Stooges); his second was inspiration. He decided to rework a self-portrait in which he had been engaged with streams of red paint — suggesting but certainly not insisting blood — dripping down his face like a mop top haircut gone wild (it also drips, conspicuously and more blood-like, from the figure’s white collar). Further obscuring the face is an indeterminate form — maybe a patch of blue jeans? — painted with the rag technique. This painting, Who’s on Third?, with its head set off against a featureless cyan background, set the stage for a rush of creativity. Foulkes had, in fact, been obscuring heads since his manipulated photographs of the late 1950s; consequently, many of the “bloody heads” are not bloody at all — in a number of them yellow triangles with thick black borders do the trick (and signal some sort of conversation with John Baldessari’s dot paintings), as do envelopes, corporate logos, crosses, plastic eye balls, golden rulers or Mickey Mouse faces.

A more unifying factor in these works might be the top level of paint that reshapes what (one imagines) was originally a normally proportioned human head into a mound of flesh — the extensions of the head, such as the chin, the ears, the height of the forehead, or the back of the skull, are simply deleted under an indifferent coat of cyan paint, making them resemble, quite often, nothing so much as mute protuberances of flesh — maybe an ankle on the neck, or a tumor. I can’t help but think of the grossly disfigured faces of veterans of World War I which Greil Marcus claims, in his chronicle of punk Lipstick Traces, touched off Dada’s more visceral impulses. Magritte’s rather clinical metaphysical self-portraits — his face obscured by a dove or apple or, in one parody, a basketball — are a touchstone, but, in Foulkes’s hand, the Belgian artist’s backgrounds of cloudy skies rush to the foreground to dispel, rather than encourage, aesthetic reverie. This isn’t always the case — there is no "always the case" with Foulkes; motifs and techniques can appear once and never again — but the fact that his most fruitful period is largely concerned with portraits of people he doesn’t actually portray is telling. If Foulkes is a humanist (his ranting against Disney seem to suggest so) he’s certainly wary of the narcissistic impulses of the memorialist; even his portrait of the architect Frank Gehry has a Mickey Mouse fist lodged in it.

But in fact, the next major phase of his career, and arguably the one he is still in, is largely characterized by self-portraits, or perhaps self-portrayals — he seems to give in to Hollywood’s natural inclination to tell stories. The artist himself enters as the dismayed hero in overtly satirical vignettes that cast him as, variably: a father horrified by the encroachment of popular culture into the seemingly organic developments of the home (Pop, 1985-1990, one of his milestones), the outraged witness to the parceling of Los Angeles among real estate speculators (The Rape of the Angels, 1991), the benefactor of a new philosophical humanism characterized by a vision of the Crucifixion while practicing Chinese in Santa Monica (The New Renaissance, 1991), or a craggy looking old fellow with a brain tumor that looks like, or rather is, Mickey Mouse (But I Thought Art Was Special, Mickey and Me, 1995). Several levels of symbolism are brought into contact in these works including classic American iconography (the Stars and Stripes, the Lone Ranger), corporate/economic imagery (McDonald’s logo, filthy American lucre), images associated with art making (canvas, brush, the sketch en plein air), and a range of realistically rendered rock formations and animals, which point to a fairly Romantic ideology of the ethical purity of prelapsarian Man.

Llyn Foulkes. But I Thought Art Was Special (Mickey and Me), 1995. Mixed mediums. 

In some ways, this might leave us with a fairly simplistic message — Mickey Mouse bad, Nature (and the aging Llyn Foulkes) good — but it is rendered complex due to the very different techniques Foulkes uses to depict distinct categories of object, as if each were circulating in their own realm of being and not actually coming into contact with each other. Sure, Mickey Mouse seems to be glued to the face of George Washington in Mr. President (2006), but is it really possible to say that a portrait of Washington — whose aura, whatever it once conveyed, has long been dispelled by the ubiquity of the dollar bill not to mention paintings by Larry Rivers — stands for anything inspiring or complex these days that Mickey Mouse (who, lounging in retirement, seems rather useful as a dusty, ironic symbol of whatever stands for cultural antiquity in America) is simply getting in the way of? One can, of course, speculate on a particularly drawn-out enactment of the Oedipus complex: Foulkes’s father-in-law from his first marriage was Ward Kimball, a head animator at Walt Disney studio — it was Kimball who gave him a copy of the Mickey Mouse Club Handbook that so enraged him with its numbing, commercially driven paeans to patriotic behavior. But we’ll leave that struggle for David Mamet to play with should he choose to direct the painter’s biopic.

Several worlds are intruding upon each other in these paintings — Mickey’s plastic head perched on the body of a naturalistically rendered frontierswoman in The Lost Frontier (1997-2005) is especially gruesome and funny — but Foulkes’s satire (Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight calls him a “crank” in his review of the retrospective) is complicated by the metaphysical vision that his use of divergent rendering techniques makes manifest. Truly hybrid — with parts expressively painted, merely copied from comics, layered outward like a relief, glued to the canvas or backlit through planes of translucent material — these works suggest that you can, indeed, choose to ignore what is so obviously there in favor of what you choose to see, rather than what the narrative of the paintings want, on a naïve level, to “say”: that “nature” or the “human” is being corrupted by the mindless march of capitalism and its loyal wingman, conformity. I’m sure that it’s the latter that Foulkes wants us to see, but his surrealist heritage, which looks in the mirror of art for something above realism, drives him toward the juxtaposition of irreconcilable objects — think, for instance, of De Chirico’s iconic painting The Song of Love (1914), a depiction of a Roman bust, green ball and rubber surgical glove — and never settles into a unitary “meaning.” While it’s true that Foulkes was a bit uncomfortable in his paintings of the 1960s, in which he played with semiotic indeterminacy (the sequences of numbers and letters that he seems to have lifted from Johns, for example, or the bits of “poetic” text that he occasionally included in his canvases like a West Coast Joe Brainard or a less verbose Raymond Pettibon) he nonetheless, when descending into the trench warfare of social satire inherited from the underground cartoonists of his youth, put in motion a clashing of materials — paint, clay, dirt, plastic, found objects, audio and electric lights — that reference a metaphysical mindset, one that resists the easy closure of the editorialist. For all of the simple things that he wants to say, he haplessly collapses into the complex.

Llyn Foulkes. The Awakening, 1994-2012. Mixed mediums.  
Photo by Robert Wedemeyer.

The single time a mirror appears in a Foulkes painting is in one of his latest, The Awakening (1994-2012), in which the gnarled image of Foulkes and his wife in bed, he reading and she suspiciously curled up like an earlier embryo of Foulkes’s (Double Trouble, 1991), stand in stark contrast to an actually glowing lamp (this piece, like Pop, uses electric backlighting for some parts of the canvas). The lamp sits on a dresser next to the mirror in which the same lamp, of the same size, material, luminescence and detail, is depicted — we might, in fact, be inside the mirror. The human side of the canvas is earthy; the technological side is ethereal, translucent, and rendered with the precision of a diagram, as if Charles Sheeler had donated a swath of one of his Precisionist paintings. Foulkes certainly likes things, employing their obstinate materiality to hinder our path to the beyond — even his forays into the vocabulary of Op art are painted brutally, and index social realities like highway danger zones — and preferred them, despite himself, over the virtual of his hero Dali or his nemesis Disney. But the lamp, to my mind, signifies that a certain content — let’s call it idealism, if not beauty — is always trying to punch its way through even his most grotesque, satirical, abject, embittered or skeptically grounded works of art.


Brian Kim Stefans is a poet and professor of English (contemporary poetry and new media) at UCLA. His most recent book of poems is Viva Miscegenation (MakeNow Press, 2013).