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Llyn Foulkes at the Hammer Museum

Llyn Foulkes, The Corporate Kiss (2001)

For both Walt Disney and Llyn Foulkes, it all started with a mouse. Mickey, to be precise, accompanied both men throughout their respective careers—Disney in a manner of lucrative iconography, and Foulkes in a manner of psychological distress. To most, the cartoon rodent was the paragon of jubilant youth, but through Foulkes’ lens, Mickey was a sanitized, furtive representative of the rats infesting the politics, pop culture, and religion through sly propaganda and commercial gerrymandering. His frustration and agonizing scrutiny of “brainwashing” institutions is not merely palpable, but aggressively sensational throughout the Hammer Museum’s retrospective of the artist’s work to date, on view through May 19, 2013.

Llyn Foulkes, In Memory of St. Vincent School (1960)

Of course, Mickey is not exclusively at fault for Foulkes’ disenchanted apprehension of the commercialized world – and really, the mouse is not quite the genesis of the artist’s unsettling practice as much as he is the crescendo. An absent father and scarring combat experiences from WWII contributed their fair share to Foulkes’ anxious cynicism long before our animated varmint; episodes that forever ingrained a wary sense of distrust in the artist’s perception of how information and rules are disseminated. His early works from the 1960s heavily reference an academic environment; the alphabet, numbers, and childlike scribbles are collaged within charred residue and wood panels – emulating the bombed-out classrooms he witnessed in Germany. In “Memory of St. Vincent School” (1960), a singed blackboard features a hurriedly jotted swastika tucked away in the upper left hand corner. Coupled with an empty child-sized chair, Foulkes’ installation prompts an eerily visceral cue of remorseful mourning for the implied indoctrination once enacted in this setting. Similarly, “Summer School” (1962) consists of a Jasper Johns-esque compartmentalized assemblage, only Foulkes’ target is the muddied, seemingly scorched clothes of a schoolgirl beneath a set of cartoonish ABCs. At the outset, it is obvious that the artist is skeptical of our educators and decision-makers, as they appear to leave a smoldering path of ruination in their wake.

 

Llyn Foulkes, The Golden Ruler (1985)

In later works, this became manifest in his savage portraits of presidents, businessmen, artists, pop cultural characters, and military commanders, known as the “bloody head” series. Nicknamed perhaps for the obvious, each subject is grotesquely disfigured – oftentimes featuring de Kooning-like bared teeth, exaggerated or obscured eyes, and a textured mutilation of the artist’s actual materials. It is worth noting that these works emerge not long after Foulkes was given a copy of the Mickey Mouse Club Handbook by his first father-in-law, Ward Kimball (who happened to be one of the lead animators for Disney at the time). Still haunted by his WWII memories, Foulkes’ was horrified by the likeness of this document to any other movement’s manifesto, most notably the idea that Mickey’s creed and “lessons” should be absorbed “almost unconsciously” by his young membership. To Foulkes, the handbook was evidence of the widespread exploitation of innocent minds for capital gain – be it children following the doctrine of Mickey, believers following the tenets of the church, or soldiers following the orders of their superiors.

Llyn Foulkes, Double Trouble (1991)

In “The Crucifixion” (1985), Christ’s extended arms tear through his subject’s forehead in a grisly explosion of paint and collage, while 1985’s “The Golden Ruler” depicts a maimed Ronald Reagan – a literal gilded ruler obscuring his bleeding eye sockets.  Both figures blinded by their raptness or calculations, they personify Foulkes’ grievances against a society of misuse and abuse. Most succinctly, and disturbingly, Foulkes chastises the consumer world for preying on children in “Double Trouble”(1991) in which a petrified fetus is nestled in the mouth of his subject. Carved and layered like a gruesome bas-relief, the work is simultaneously repulsive, offensive, and inexplicably engrossing – a turnabout on the commercial tactics the artist so resolutely despises.

Llyn Foulkes, Pop (1985-90)

Ultimately, we end where we (somewhat) began: with a mouse. Or specifically, his manifesto. In the final room of the museum’s exhibition, “Pop” (1985-1990) bids us farewell, its illuminated diorama glowing from the back of an otherwise pitch-black chamber, complete with eerie patriotic soundtrack scored and performed by the artist and his kids. Exemplary of Foulkes’ remarkable abilities to create depth within the picture plane, “Pop” is the culmination of both his masterful distortion of found materials, and his impassioned agitation. Positioned between his two children, clinging to a Diet Coke, and gripped by the insinuated images on his television screen, Foulkes’ self-caricature appears horrified and defeated. His daughter lays a hand on his shoulder, while his son peers beyond a text-filled journal, which reads the final lines of the Mickey Mouse Club Handbook: “I will be a square shooter in my home, in school, on the playground. I will be a good American.” As if gripped by the realization that control is an illusion, perhaps a slight play on the trompe l’oeil occurring within the work itself, Foulkes’ eyes bulge from his head (and seemingly follow the viewer around the room). A small photo of a mushroom cloud hanging above a wall calendar dated August 6—the day the bombing of Hiroshima occurred—seems a quiet reminder of the futility we endure as citizens, consumers, and parents. Despite his tireless, ardent opposition, Foulkes appears to know his exertion could possibly end in vain; that our marching orders are inevitably given by strangers in high, holy, or hidden places. Or, by a mouse.

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