A long overdue retrospective of Llyn Foulkes is currently on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Foulkes, himself based in Los Angeles, is a compelling and significant yet under-recognized contemporary artist, and this extensive retrospective consists of 140 works spanning the breadth of Foulkes’ career. Although Foulkes had a solo exhibit in 1961 at the now legendary Ferus Gallery, he never received the same level of recognition of many of the other artists who exhibited there (the best known would be Andy Warhol, who had his premier solo show at the Ferus in 1962). Foulkes’ visceral work remained outside the major art world, and his outsider status contributes to the importance of this retrospective.
Salvador Dali was an early and major influence of Foulkes. Fittingly, the exhibition opens with Image of Perception, a 1953 painting whose desert background and surreal subject matter clearly shows the influence of Dali. The next work, a selection of cartoon drawings, shows another early and important influence on Foulkes. He re-contextualizes the traditionally slapstick cartoon figures and style into barren black and white drawings. However, the influence of pop culture and comedic innocence is present in the occasional inclusion of buoyant dialogue.
The largest and most dominant piece in the first gallery is a photographic print of the artist’s home and studio space which fills an entire wall. While not particularly captivating, it does give a view of the site of production and a glimpse into his future work in landscape.
In the second gallery, his landscape works begin to appear. These first works are inspired by postcards of the west, and predominantly use dark, bleak colors. Their modern, skewed impressionism suggests the isolationof the Beat Generation, as well as the dominance of abstract expressionism at their time. As the times progress, the landscapes start to move away from the bleak and further into a pop sensibility. Desert rock formations, still rendered in black, are set against vivid color in Portrait of Leo Gorcey, 1969, where a tower of black rocks stands paramounts before a magenta sky.
Western landscapes continue to play an important role, but are not the sole influence of Foulkes’ west. The socio-economic state comes through via images of livestock. In Pig, a butcher-like image of a pig embossed with circles shows Foulkes continued macabre, as well as culturally influenced, references.
Starting with Junction #410, Foulkes begins to break with direct landscapes and move towards tableaux. A stark black and white photographic image of a barren hill is repeatedly reproduced down the right side. The left side and majority of the painting features cautionary yellow and black bars. The bars subvert the traditional landscape image while the minimalist motif modernizes the piece.
In his most striking tableau, In Memory of St. Vincent School,1960, Foulkes uses assemblage of relationally minimalist means. The piece is composed of a deteriorated, charred blackboard. A rusted metal strip injects the monochrome black and holds it against the wall. A lone unadorned wood chair is placed before it. The piece’s minimal pallet and starkness is captivating.
Another of the more striking works on view is also a tableau. Flanders merges the elements of sculpture and painting. White plastic that appears to be flowing like a curtain protrudes from a board of peeling white paint. The piece is haunting and dramatic in its sense of captured time.
The disturbance of Foulkes’ tableaux is muted by the graphic abjection of the portraiture he began making in the 1970′s. These works feature faces of men variously obscured by blood, hair, symbols or collage. The obscurement both strips the subjects of their individual identity and feeds a fear of the unseen. Who’s On Third?, 1971-73 is a portrait of a young man with a bloody collar, his face entirely covered in red hair nearly the same shade as the blood. Intensifying the grotesque quality of the piece, a roughly cut, abstract black and white image is collaged atop his head like a severed brain.
The concept of the veiled or gruesome head appears again in later pieces. In 1983 Foulkes made One For The Money, a painting of a man’s face with a dollar bill over his face, two novelty plastic eyes protruding from the money. The 2006 mixed medium piece Dali and Me, again uses the distorted portrait as a base concept. However in Dali and Me, the face has one man’s eye atop the others but is mostly recognizable despite the mouth being cut out and gaping open.
The convergence of concepts and aesthetics is best seen in the final piece on view, The Last Frontier, 1997-2005. This mixed medium piece is fittingly a definitive, monumental one. It is arguably a masterpiece, but surely epic. The picture creates an illusion of depth, seemingly stretching on past the wall. Beyond the fantastic sense of depth, the work holds great conceptual strength. Foulkes aptly and provocatively synthesizes his continual use of macabre and landscape with surrealism and pop art.