Llyn Foulkes at the New Museum: A Skilled Painter With a Simple Political Message

by Corinna Kirsch on August 21, 2013 · 20 comments Reviews

Llyn Foulkes, "O’Pablo," 1983. Courtesy the New Museum.

Llyn Foulkes is a skilled painter with a simple political message: America is letting us down. His paintings are full of quirky found objects, unexpected textures, and an unfettered, playful use of paint. But they’re not perfect. Foulkes’ materials can seem secondary to conveying those very simple, heavy-handed messages. I can like art that I disagree with, but Foulkes’ obsessions are at times feebly argued, and borderline crazy, making it hard to love his paintings entirely.

Llyn Foulkes, "Images of Perception," 1953. Courtesy the New Museum.

It took Foulkes a while to reach that point in his painting practice. The New Museum’s exhibition casts a wide-reaching net on Foulkes’ career, looking at his progression chronologically. Entry to the exhibition gives a glimpse into the artist’s early years, and begins with a handful of Foulkes’ teenage work. Museums rarely focus on that period of youthful awkwardness, but with this exhibition, there’s a clear strategy: the vitrines full of the artist’s early flirtations with surrealism and cartoons extend to his later, pop culture-critical paintings.

The teenage work does has some gems among them, notably Foulkes’ ink-on-paper cartoons. A series of smaller works on your everyday sort of 8.5 x 11 in. paper show influences ranging from Walt Disney to The New Yorker, but with a very particular, individualized attention to deforming the human body. Noses are extended, eyes bulge, and vaginas are turned into gigantic black holes. Like the surrealist-inspired paintings, these absurd drawings show a bag of tricks Foulkes would return to later in life.

That said, the first gallery’s walls are filled with run-of-the-mill abstract expressionist paintings made during his 20s. Think textbook Rauschenberg, or Johns, but not as skilled. There’s a bunch of them, and needlessly so.

Thankfully, a bit of wry humor returned to the works we get to see from 1963 and after. Foulkes began painting cows and rocks, often juxtaposed with op-art stripes. Rocks look like genitals, cows look like aliens—or they look like rocks. These paintings are better, and they give a taste of the strange way Foulkes’ mind will works in his later paintings. But mostly, they’re conceptual jokes for art insiders; they’re op-art with a little bit of cow thrown in.

Llyn Foulkes, "Junction #410," 1963. Courtesy the New Museum.

By the 1970s, Foulkes started carving out a niche for himself, making work that could in no way be lumped into then-dominant categories of conceptual art. This is around the time that he began exploring a hybrid practice; he was playing music, and came up with The Machine, a one-man band contraption that’s mostly percussive; it includes cowbells, drums, and xylophones (a video demonstrating the Machine’s use is on view). His songs, defined by his raspy, Tom Waits-like voice, are as playful, expressive, and inventive as any number of psych-inspired art and music hybrids like Jack Early or Captain Beefheart.

Llyn Foulkes, "Who's on Third?," 1971-73. Courtesy the New Museum.

That embrace of fringe culture carried over into his painting practice, too. There’s a room devoted to the “Bloody Head” series, which contain, for the most part, portraits of generic businessmen covered with blood red paint, and collaged with photographs, text, and found objects. Envelopes take pride of place in many of these works, with the figures’ faces blotted out by air mail. Letter to President Ford (1975), shows what’s presumably a return-to-sender letter that’s lacerated the sitter’s face. Not a positive take on the USPS, or the government. Say what you will about the simple angst motivating this painting, at this time, Foulkes’ interest in materials—and what the show’s curator Ali Subotnick refers to as “dimensional paintings”—really starts to shine. The irregular, rough, rummage sale-type of frames seem to have been a special fascination for Foulkes, and they became just as much a part of the work as the canvas.

After the “Bloody Heads” room, there’s a thin corridor separating Foulkes’ earlier and later work. The tunnel, while crammed, shows Foulkes’ skill at creating dimensional paintings. Those works resemble stage sets more than paintings, and create a great illusion of depth through material alone. O’Pablo (1983) shows a grotesque scene of a dead, suit-wearing art critic with a hard on, surrounded by a cast of characters including a cherubic, naked baby and a yellow smiley announcing “All aboard for LA!”. The critic’s arm, his hand made from an wire outline, dangles off the edge of a recycled frame; his dick at attention, has been made from some sort of repurposed metal object. A variety of other ephemera stand-in to create figures in Foulkes’ bizarre tableau, which tackles just about every approach to representation there is. Like a low-budget horror film, not every prop is new or necessarily believable as “real,” but the director’s skill is there, creating an entirely unique universe.

Llyn Foulkes, "Pop," 1985-90. Courtesy the New Museum.

Since then his paintings have grown more specific, and heavy-handed in their criticism of pop culture. He seems obsessed with Mickey Mouse, and the exhbitiion’s wall text mentions that Foulkes particularly hated Disney for brainwashing kids. Take, for example, But I Thought Art Was Special (1995), a self-portrait of the artist with Mickey Mouse. The paint is chunky, the surface unrefined, and Mickey Mouse looks like a fetus about to pop out of a womb inside Llyn Foulkes’ brain. While this work, like many others, repeatedly demonstrate an extraordinary command and obsession with materials, the message is borderline dopey.

The best work in the exhibition, and most mesmerizing, shows off Foulkes’ musical and artistic talent. That work, Pop (1985-1990), is visually compelling, but shares in a similar set of problems as the other work—something’s wrong with Americana.

Set aside in a darkened room, the seven-foot-long painting glows from LED lights, like a TV set, and plays “America the Beautiful” and “Once upon a Time There Was a Mouse,” a song about Mickey Mouse written and performed by Foulkes on The Machine; it’s accompanied by backing vocals from his children, who Foulkes features in the painting. With Foulkes’ carnivalistic tune, featuring The Machine’s xylophone, trombone, and drums, the painting gives off a funhouse of horrors vibe.

The setting’s a domestic one, featuring Foulkes himself, his son and daughter, in a wood-paneled room adorned with just a few knick-knacks, including a calendar with a picture of a mushroom cloud. Foulkes integrates actual objects into the painting whenever he can, which makes for a fun game of “find the mass-produced object.”

For Foulkes, the ‘burbs are a dreary place: the threat of nuclear war looms on the horizon, but nothing will change while we’re stuck in this loop. This painting’s the closest we get to complexity in Foulkes’ terrifying view of America, but it’s still bitterly fatalist, and simple. Yes, the world sucks, but anyone can tell you that.


DAVID E. KEARNS August 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Wow, do you really think anyone cares whether you “love his paintings entirely” or not? I mean, really….this is piss-poor art writing about a great artist.

Paddy Johnson August 21, 2013 at 12:12 pm

This is sounding a little trolly David. If you think there’s a problem with the argument articulate it. I like the work a lot too, but all of Corinna’s points can be substantiated, imo.

DAVID E. KEARNS August 21, 2013 at 12:20 pm

“trolly”….please. Do better than that. The problem is that you that the reviewer is apparently too “simple minded” to appreciate Foulkes’ work, which is clearly not a simple, easily-digested package. It’s sad.

Corinna Kirsch August 21, 2013 at 12:13 pm

There’s a thesis that these works are great paintings, but I disagree with their simple-minded message. That’s a problem we all wrestle with in art, and daily life: can you appreciate something if you disagree with it on a conceptual, formal, or political level? That thesis gave rise to my statement that I don’t “love them entirely.”

DAVID E. KEARNS August 21, 2013 at 12:23 pm

Your analysis is extremely “simple minded”. And “feebly argued”??? Are *you* “crazy”???

DAVID E. KEARNS August 21, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Also: you “disagree with [Foulkes’] simple-minded message”. OK, I guess it all makes sense now, America hasn’t “let us down”. It’s all peachy. Congratulations. And, good luck with that.

Bobojacobo August 21, 2013 at 7:33 pm

Is the dopey attitude behind the work self-aware? I always thought that there was a bit of a performative and self-critical aspect to them. Maybe I’m wrong. Also, I totally disagree with David, I think that if the work comes off as one-dimensional conceptually, then that would detract from it as a whole. I doubt the US art audience is ever begging for one-sided editorials.

DAVID E. KEARNS August 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm

….so, as far as being “conceptually” “One-dimensional”….hey, that’s a pretty shallow read of the work. Gallows humor isn’t for everybody. Some don’t have the stomach, some, well just don’t get it. That’s fine, but to dismiss the work as a result is profoundly uninteresting as “art criticism” goes, in my book anyway. To call the LF retrospective a “one-sided editorial” is so reductive it defies logic. It at the very least reveals a serious lack of looking. Foulkes isn’t easy, I’m not alone in that opinion, rest assured.

DAVID E. KEARNS August 21, 2013 at 8:06 pm

“dopey attitude”….”trolly”, eh Paddy?

Paddy Johnson August 21, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Oops. That comment was made in response to the wrong commenter.

Bobojacobo August 21, 2013 at 8:24 pm

“Some don’t have the stomach, some, well just don’t get it.”

You’re ignoring the third option: some get it, can stomach it, and still find it one-note. I’m not deciding since I haven’t seen all of it together. But let’s not pretend that Corinna somehow is mentally uncapable or unworthy of finding faults with Foulkes work — she obviously brings up a legitimate concern. Artists are better when they’re multi-faceted, and maybe LF doesn’t escape that criticism completely. I’m not taking a stance because I’ve only seen 1-2 of his pieces in person. But I don’t care how big the invisible posse that agrees with you is, this isn’t about consensus, it’s about reviewing a show. So get off your high horse.

Paddy Johnson August 21, 2013 at 9:16 pm

FYI: David Kearn got himself blacklisted, so his comments are now invisible.

My comment went thusly:

David, we’d like to have an actual conversation here. That can’t happen when we have you abusing anyone who isn’t advocating for total adoration of Llyn Foulkes. It’s a disruption to what would otherwise be a productive conversation.

As such, you’ve been blacklisted from commenting on the blog for 30 days. You’re welcome to comment on AFC after that time, assuming you can find a post that doesn’t make you quite so irrational.

Paddy Johnson August 21, 2013 at 8:25 pm

I think Foulkes’ political messages are pretty straight forward, and I’m not sure I see the self-awareness you’re talking about. (Not saying they aren’t there, just that I’d need an example of it because nothing strikes me that way off the bat.)

For the most part, I don’t find that the political message detracts from the work (Corinna and I have different opinions there, but I like how she staked out her position), and I guess part of that is because I don’t see painting as a medium in which it’s fair to expect super heady political statements. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been done (Manet did so brilliantly) but just that, for me, it wasn’t a prerequisite to enjoy the show..

Paddy Johnson August 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm

And from this review, I think it’s clear that Corinna did enjoy the show. Just not all of it.

Bobojacobo August 23, 2013 at 12:30 am

It seems to me that we’re on the same page. I admit that I am so far from being an expert on Foulkes that it’s difficult to say how I’d feel in a room full of his work. I like a lot of painters and artists in general even if they have a limited scope — much like in music. I don’t expect every artist to have all of their bases covered — that seems like a critical theory nightmare. My question (to the cosmos): is Foulkes merely disturbed by the US (as we all should be on some level) or is he winkingly adopting any of its idiosyncrasies along with it? Stylistically, I could see his work relating to Grant Wood, who was knowingly subverting provincial art (from what I can tell). Is Foulkes also criticizing himself, as he criticizes the US? I’m not qualified to say, to me it’s always seemed like an open question from a distance. Either way it’s an interesting conversation to be had about interesting work.

Quillis August 22, 2013 at 5:01 am

I’m in total agreement about your take on the late work, but I wonder if his early experiments with the Johns lexicon and strange amalgams of Pop-conceptual-photorealism in the later 60s deserve closer consideration. I’m not sure if the images of cows and hillsides were merely “jokes,” and even if they were, what sort?

Corinna Kirsch August 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm

They kinda reminded me of Kosuth’s jokes, if Kosuth were a talented painter.

BamBam August 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I don’t think it’s entirely fair to describe the politics of Foulkes’ work as “simple-minded”. If the political sentiment of an art work is delivered clearly to a viewer, surely that’s an accomplishment on the part of the artist? We’ve become so used to subverting popular imagery that it’s easy to think it’s easy. I was genuinely taken aback by the Disney club letter that Foulkes had embedded into one of his pieces – a creepy piece of social engineering. Sure, his latter work might not be subtle, but do artworks have to be?

Corinna Kirsch August 22, 2013 at 1:43 pm

BamBam, I referred to the works as “simple” in the review. Why? There’s a good/bad dichotomy. Having two options? That’s simple. Also, I liked the show; some commenters are ignoring that.

Paddy Johnson August 22, 2013 at 1:50 pm

I think BamBam acknowledges that the latter work was simple. The question is whether that’s okay.

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