‘I guess I do a lot of complaining,’ admitted Llyn Foulkes recently. ‘But I think I have a lot to complain about!’ His comment came during a performance at the Hammer Museum of the byzantine musical apparatus he calls The Machine; it is just like Foulkes to toss out an acerbic aside even when it looks like he’s having fun. More than half a century since the Los Angeles-based artist began his career, he shows little sign of mellowing.
This long-awaited retrospective, organized by Ali Subotnick, is as exhaustive an overview as we’re ever likely to get. It runs all the way from Foulkes’s teenage cartoons and clumsy pastiches of Salvador Dalí through to his extraordinary more recent trompe l’oeil tableaux, which look like nothing else on God’s sweet earth. It makes a compelling case for the seriousness and depth of his artistic contribution.
So what does Foulkes have to complain about? At the age of 19, he was drafted into the army and sent from his native Washington State to Germany. The year was 1954, and Foulkes witnessed a broken landscape and a society struggling to come to terms with its past. He was profoundly affected; six years later, having completed graduate studies at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, he made In Memory of St Vincent School (1960). The assemblage features a child’s chair beneath a section of charred blackboard with a swastika scratched into it. He visited sites in Germany that he had seen in newspaper and television images over a decade earlier. Flanders (1961–2) references not World War II but the Great War. A painting of a black, ravaged landscape is set into a curtain of billowing plastic, and a photograph of the same scene hangs in a separate frame below. Apparently the picture shows not Belgium but Death Valley, California.
It is ironic that an artist from LA, the capital of mass cultural dissemination, should develop an interest in image mediation during travels in postwar Europe. Edging away from his borderline histrionic early style (which owes too much to Wallace Berman, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns), Foulkes hit on a technique using a rag soaked in paint to create nearly photorealist surfaces that resemble equally fabric, leathery skin (human or animal) or rock. This painterly trick had two benefits. The first was that Foulkes was able to paint near-identical rocks, which in works such as Nob Hill (1964) he repeated on the same canvas like stereoscopic photographs. The second was that those rock formations, in their resemblance of skin, became human or animalistic. Subotnick hangs Postcard from Gilroy (1967) adjacent to The Pig (1969), the latter’s rounded back mirroring the former’s horizon.
In a few years Foulkes had moved from messy, furious assemblages and collages to photorealist paintings on canvas of rocks, pigs and cows. Anger, nevertheless, still simmered beneath their surfaces; many works from this period bear the scrawled legend: ‘This painting is dedicated to the American.’ The American what? Foulkes didn’t say, but the dedication sounds darkly accusatorial. In the early 1970s, the story goes, he was working on a self-portrait when a friend took him to a mortuary. In shocked response, he returned to the painting and added blood-soaked hair, and an exposed, grey featureless skull. Who’s On Third? (1971–3) was a breakthrough painting for Foulkes, and allowed his florid taste for the macabre and his expressionist inclinations to re-emerge.
Foulkes is monumentally prolific, and Subotnick has chosen to reflect this rather than curtail or edit it. On one grey-painted wall, more than a dozen of Foulkes’s portraits from the 1970s – all faces obscured by gore, or found images, or both – are hung salon-style. Towards the end of this decade, as Foulkes tells it, he was given a copy of the Mickey Mouse Club Handbook (1934), which detailed how the Disney Corporation hoped to mould their customers into loyal and pliant young patriots. Foulkes was outraged.
This indignation might seem a touch naïve today, but it fuelled much of Foulkes’s work for the next three decades. Made in Hollywood (1983) includes a facsimile page from the offending book as well as a photograph of the artist’s young children; Deliverance (2007), shows an outline of Foulkes, gun in hand, a dead Mickey lying at his feet. Subotnick admits, in an exhibition wall text, that ‘subtlety has never been the artist’s style’. That is an understatement. In 1983, Foulkes created O’Pablo, a three-dimensional tableau featuring the executed corpse of an art critic, a press pass pinned to his jacket and an erection poking out of his unzipped flies. This is the point at which Foulkes, as the saying goes, jumped the shark. The work is too much in every way – too desperate to shock, too splenetic to be convincing. There are even copies of Foulkes’s past paintings on the scene’s back wall.
From the 1980s on, Foulkes’s socio-political critique (of which poor Mickey often bears the brunt) takes centre stage. However rickety his polemic may be, his convictions undoubtedly pushed him to new extremes of formal innovation. His two masterpieces, Pop (1985–90) and The Lost Frontier (1997–2005) are specially lit in their own darkened rooms. Each intricate tableau is built from media that, in some cases, are also the subjects they represent. Wood is wood, a shirt is a shirt. Pop even includes a soundtrack, written and performed by Foulkes on the Machine. Both paintings show the artist watching television; it is perhaps this kind of stupefied viewing experience that Foulkes is trying to contend with. That is no mean feat, but here, in these entrancing works, he succeeds.