LLYN FOULKES

[1] [2]


(1) Llyn Foulkes, "Who's on Third?", o/c, 60 x 50", 1971-73.
Photo courtesy Jones/Faulkner Collection, Chicago.
(2) Llyn Foulkes, ""Where Did I Go Wrong?", mixed media, 71 x 54", 1991.
Photo courtesy of the Collection of Tom Pachett, Los Angeles.

by Shirle Gottlieb

(Laguna Art Museum, Orange County) God bless the Fellows of Contemporary Art. Without them, Southern California would be deprived of experiencing this insightful retrospective exhibit of Llyn Foulkes, who has stubbornly followed his own drummer for the past three decades.
Overwhelmed by the failure of 'The American Dream,' but steadfast in his belief that art has the power to transform peoples' lives, this independent artist has been expressing his gravest concerns in mixed-media paintings of desecrated landscapes, tortured portraiture, and politically charged narratives since the late 1950s.

Never mind that most critics at the time frowned on his relatively traditional modes of expression (including painting itself) regarding them as passé and out-of-fashion. Foulkes continued to listen to his own voice, cling to his ideals, and remained true to his vision. Improvising each step of the way, he combined, unabashedly, objects of popular culture with the formal elements of painting that he learned at Chouinard Art Institute (Years later, ironically, CAI would be purchased by the Disney Corporation--the very symbol of his nemesis--to become Cal Arts).

Foulkes' art is startling to say the least. Part Pop, part surreal, part realistic (often trompe l'oeil), part portraiture (often himself), with heavy emphasis on assemblage (which emerged in the Southland at about the time the artist completed Chouindard), and highly charged with dark humor, the end results are uniquely his own.

In the thirty-five works that comprise Behind a Rock and a Hard Place we learn his body of work over thirty-five years is predominantly aimed at exposing the fallacy of the American dream, the myth of the American West, and some blatant contradictions in American life.

The earliest works hone in on ecological and environmental concerns. Rather than celebrate American post-war prosperity, as other Pop artists did, Foulkes' paintings were elegies to our disappearing landscape. He lamented the loss of resources that resulted from the 1950s land boom: the forests being felled, the mountains being carved, the desert being sub-divided. He pays homage to our dwindling heritage in such graphic works as Geography Lesson, The Page, Ellensburg Canyon Landscape and Death Valley U.S.A.

In the early seventies, Foulkes turned his attention to painting explosive portraiture and narrations on the disruptive forces that were then dividing the country: the Vietnam war, racial discrimination, the rise of greed, corporate takeovers, pollution. . . .

Who's On First, a gruesome, bloody head (the first of many in a series), may be seen as an incriminating self-portrait, a transformative mask, or painful recognition that psychopathic tendencies are found throughout the human family. Money in the Bank depicts an anonymous bureaucrat who represents 'The Establishment' and 'Big Business.' With his arm hanging out of the picture frame, extending into the gallery (thus destroying aesthetic distance), Foulkes seems to suggest that Corporate America is encroaching into our lives and invading our personal privacy.
He began his experiments with Mickey Mouse and comic-book style text (words printed in bubbles) in the 1980s. By appropriating recognizable cartoons as Pop signifiers, then inserting them into realistically painted scenarios, Foulkes creates paradoxical imagery that stops people cold in their tracks. In the guise of comedy, serious socio-political statements are presented in ways that most viewers can digest.

One example is The Last Outpost, a wall-sized mixed-media paean to lost childhood innocence and the disappearance of the Western frontier. The Lone Ranger lies dying on the floor of a log cabin-or is it a saloon? Mickey Mouse looks on while a small boy with a gun strolls away into the desert. No more good guys and bad guys. No more reality and fantasy. The Lone Ranger is dead; Mickey Mouse survives; everyone is smiling because it's all fun and games.

Even more hard-hitting are The Rape of the Angels and Where Did I Go Wrong?. In the first, a faceless bureaucrat in the LaLa Land Planning Department sits at his desk dissecting a map of the city. His head is stuffed with bags full of money; Mickey Mouse perches on his shoulder singing Sue City Sue; and a dejected self-portrait of the artist stares out of the picture thinking, "The Bastards!".

Where Did I Go Wrong? goes one step farther. A despondent Superman sits in a desolate landscape reading a newspaper. A picture of the President is on the front page. The paper's articles refer to Operation Desert Storm and the proliferation of death, destruction and social unrest in the world since the end of the Cold War. To the right of our impotent hero is a barren 'bush'. . . .at his foot is a lost 'quail'. . . .figure it out for yourself.

By the 1990s Foulkes has developed a sculptural method of painting that is exemplified by four small works he completed this year. Among these, The Western Viewpoint depicts two Native Americans sitting inside a compound surrounded by barbed-wire. Mickey Mouse sits on the fence with his back to the viewer. On one side of him is the American flag, on the other a sign reads "Government Property." Heady stuff indeed.