Llyn Foulkes, The Visionary Outsider of Noir: Old Man Blues @ Spruth Magers

Llyn Foulkes’ visionary exhibition of disturbing political work opened at Spruth Magers on the evening before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Like Cassandra, the unheeded prophetess who predicted the fall of Troy but was not believed - to her anguish - Foulkes has been an unheeded voice for anguished political messages that assume a prophetic quality in the Trump era. Foulkes is a highly acclaimed artist with legendary status, but his new anti-Trump artworks acquire monumental cultural significance by coinciding with the massive, spontaneous resistance movement which fights the dangers he prognosticated decades ago.

For over 50 years, Foulkes foresaw the dangers of corporate greed, the abuse of power and the cognitive dissonance of American culture, symbolized by Mickey Mouse, an icon calculated as a distraction from the murderous history of a nation which has been at war for 224 years of its 241 year colonial existence. Foulkes explores the dark underbelly of the American dream, by scratching beneath the Disney-glazed surface to expose a history of exploitation, violence, racism, environmental destruction, human suffering and mass media manipulation. Like David Lynch’s neo-noir films (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive) and darkly comic television series Twin Peaks, Foulkes lifts the curtain from saccharine American fantasy to reveal a hidden nightmare of sickness and violence. L.A noir has been explored primarily in cinema (Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Reservoir Dogs) and literature (from Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust to Charles Bukowski’s fiction) more than the visual arts. Foulkes is one of the few L.A. artists who can capture the melancholic aspect of noir with hands-on artwork - which is why he has been so difficult to categorize. He is also a talented musician who created a unique sculptural “machine” from found objects to facilitate his own one-man band. From music he learned how to emotionally connect with his audience. Foulkes does not fit any school or “-ism” because he is so idiosyncratic, and prefers the solitary life of an introspective artist.

While Foulkes is an outsider artist with the courage to depict uncomfortable truths, he is also portrayed inside his paintings exposing his personal angst trapped within a dystopian vision. For decades, Foulkes has fought Mickey in an effort to be heard as an artist with something important to say about a cartoon mouse imprinted in our unconscious. He has staged mock battles with the cartoon mouse. He has painted the mouse eating his brain - in But I Thought I Was Special (Mickey and Me) (1995). He finally shot Mickey in Deliverance (2007). But the mouse is immortalized as a cartoon, so he reappears in Foulkes’ new anti-Trump paintings pointing to a television in a graveyard in Night Train (2016) and perched on the shoulder of disfigured war veteran in Vasquez 111 (2016). Mickey cannot disappear because he is “implanted” into our brains from childhood - which was the intention according to the mission statement in the original Mickey Mouse handbook (1934) given to Foulkes by his father- in-law. The idea of making money from indoctrinating children horrifies Foulkes - and it is the state of denial induced by commodified fantasy that he challenges. Today this is called “hyper-normalizing” a fake reality.

Like Anselm Kiefer, who explores the German history of false hopes, illusions and shocking mistakes, Foulkes destroys paint, scratches off paint layers and integrates foreign material into the paint surface. Both artists explore their themes within the act of painting by destroying paint in order to symbolize the failure of utopian dreams based on inhumanity. Foulkes is a great virtuoso painter like Kiefer, who does not merely illustrate his political message, but embodies it with innovative techniques that make his outcry visceral and raw. Foulkes‘ work was never considered easy to view because his work is so emotionally charged with anger, even if it is undercut by a wry sense of humor. But his work anticipated the worldwide Trump resistance, as millions protest in the streets to externalize their outrage.

Foulkes has always been ahead of the curve, appearing at major turning points in Los Angeles art history only to retreat and reappear multiple times over the decades. He was represented by Ferus Gallery in the early 1960s only to withdraw from the “cool school” preferring, instead, to explore the noir side of pop. He reappeared again in Paul Schimmel’s groundbreaking Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 90s at MOCA (1992), re-contextualized as one of the transgressive “bad boys” - alongside 16 artists and 10 writers - who explore the dark side of a city with cartoons, explicit sexuality and shocking violence. Then he retreated and reappeared again in Pacific Standard Time (2011), included in seven exhibitions; then once again in the Hammer Museum’s retrospective Llyn Foulkes (2013-14) curated by Ali Subolnick ( which travelled to New Museum in New York and Museum Kirhaus Kleve in Germany). Now, Foulkes reappears at Spruth Magers just as political art is gaining wider relevance.

Foulkes’ early work also gained European acclaim by winning the first-place prize in painting at the Paris Biennial (1967). His work has been in European group exhibitions at Centre Pompidou (2006) and Fondazione Prada Milan (2015) and exhibited internationally in the 54th Venice Biennale ( 2011), Documenta 13 (2012).

Foulkes’ works are like unfinished conversations. Foulkes often leaves incomplete paint strokes or partially destroys works to redo them because they are never really finished. Even I Think It’s Over (2104) retains this ambivalence in spite of its declarative title. In this painting of a dark, foreground silhouette talking to a cat, Foulkes leaves the background unfinished, which disappears into infinity behind volcanic rocks, creating a palpable feeling of uncertainty. Foulkes is a master of space composition and uses receding space to suggest that we can never really reach an end - even though he keeps probing deeper into his own psyche and the aesthetic possibilities of his visual materials. Foulkes is acclaimed for his assemblage works that incorporate real objects such as bulging fake eyes, real teeth, rubber faces, prosthetic limbs and old clothing (neckties and sweaters) that offset the imaginary painted images and protrude outside the flat picture plane. His assemblage works evolved into more complex tableaux that implement collage techniques to embed objects deeper into the paint - influenced by Robert Rauschenberg’s innovative combinations. Foulkes will dig into wood so that it recedes further into the wall, then situate vintage photographs of historic political figures and unknown soldiers inside the found wood to create a sense of a history repeating itself.

In the exhibition centerpiece, Throwing in the Towel (2016), Foulkes looks at his hand with uncertainty after trying to throw a towel which is caught on a fence. Has he really ended the fight? Is he really defeated? A wolf, made of real wolf skin, stands behind his silhouette made from a photograph draped in a real sweater. In the foreground is an actual Los Angeles direction sign, behind which is a lost astronaut figure in front of an abstract background that recedes into deep space - to create a further sense of the unknown. This unfinished conversation has no conclusion because there is no clear direction. In Untitled Dinghy (2016), a human figure holding an American flag lies in a wooden dinghy inscribed “Trump Lifeboat” in an unspecified place. Foulkes’ work is an endlessly fascinating analogue to his psychological and aesthetic investigations. It is a conversation to be continued with himself and his visual materials.

For decades, Foulkes was known for painting tactile monumental rocks, often based on childhood memories of Yakima, where he grew up near an Indian reservation. He also references Vasquez Rocks which often appear in sci-fi movies and old television westerns filmed at Spahn Movie Ranch. These monumental rocks are so associated with American cinema that they inhabit our imagination as symbols of a western or planetary frontier, yet they are also incorporated into Disneyland’s fake environment. They are painted like a view through a car window.

Behind these realistically painted rocks, Foulkes paints abstract skies to create more spatial depth and a stronger sense of uncertainty. Foulkes admits his debt to Willem de Kooning but he also feels free to combine abstraction with representation. He uses abstraction in his famous “Bloody Heads” because he says, “I like taking something - whether it is a painting or photograph - and changing it to get into more abstract qualities of what is happening on the face. Things will change, space will go back in, and it becomes a new person.”

Interestingly, facial disfiguration is a recurring theme in L.A. noir films (Jack Nicholson’s nostril is cut off in Chinatown, high-class call girls are forced to go under the knife in L.A. Confidential, an ear is cut off in a torture scene in Reservoir Dogs, and a disembodied ear is discovered in the opening scene in Blue Velvet.) Within the context of Los Angeles, facial disfiguration is especially horrifying because it is a direct attack on Hollywood glamour, and Foulkes uses disfiguration to portray his corporate and political enemies - dressed in suits and ties - as comedic villains. But he also explores the disfiguration of the tragic victims of war violence who appear with bandages, envelopes and arrows attached to their heads.

After a kidney stone infection caused temporary psychosis two years ago, Foulkes snapped, drove his van to the top of a cliff with every intention of driving off of it, but could not finish his suicide mission. In the final seconds, he thought of the grief it would cause his children and those he would leave behind. The Crazy Drive (2016) refers directly to this aborted suicide attempt, and the story of this crazy drive is attached to the back of the work. With characteristic honesty, Foulkes says, “I am not ashamed of saying that this happened,” but after this event, “things started to become more positive.” To make these incomprehensible feelings tangible, in The Crazy Drive (2015) a glimmer of hope is created by far distant light buried deep in the background.

Foulkes’ monumental Night Train (2016) is an immediate response to the recent presidential election. He creates a desolate graveyard, beside a golf course made from fake grass, punctuated with billboards, telephone poles and a battered crosswalk sign for children. Trump points to Goldman Sachs on a billboard and Mickey Mouse stands by a bright shining television. Foulkes says the atomic graveyard is a reminder of “all those people who died for someone and for real causes - and Trump doesn’t care.” But even in this dystopian vision of Trumpland, beautiful stars shine through a black sky in the distance creating a stark light, which echoes the same manipulation of light in early film noir. Foulkes says, “this one came about by the nature of the materials which afforded depth.” His works are not planned and he never knows how they will end.

Ever the maverick, Foulkes loves to break rules by bringing in surprising found elements, yet he is still a classical painter at heart who uses space composition and light - the vocabulary of all great painters for creating emotional tone. But instead of using a traditional source of light that illuminates a painting, his light source is deep in the distant background and can barely break through the surface - recalling Kiefer’s use of stark light, to create a melancholic tone.

Foulkes’ work differs from other L.A. noir artists because his work is more melancholic, dystopian, overtly political, deeply personal - and profoundly moral. Like the prophetess Cassandra he has a dreadful message about the dangers he foresees. His work is a powerful, parodistic analogue to his struggle with the emotional weight of carrying this message. Like the horns on his “machine” which were originally used to sound a warning, or his lamenting voice singing his lyrics, Foulkes tableaux paintings are a warning statement.

The world has caught up with Foulkes… but he wishes it hadn’t.

Music Performance: Foulkes will perform on his machine at the closing reception of the exhibition on March 4th at 4pm.

Where: Spruth Magers, 5900 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036 P+ 323 634 0600

Exhibition Dates : January 19 - March 04, 2017

Film by Eric Minh Swenson with an interview by Mat Gleason:

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