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.
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.
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.
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.
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.