Llyn Foulkes ranks among that rare cadre of artists for whom fame is an optional extra. Over the course of his fifty-year career, the Los Angeles–based multimedia artist and musician has experienced periods of success—for his monumental Pop-influenced paintings of rocks and, decades later, for his zany, large-scale narrative tableaux. But much of his work has been met with silence from critics and buyers, allowing Foulkes an enduring reputation as an underappreciated art world outsider. The artist’s retrospective at the New Museum, a traveling exhibition organized by the curators of Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum, positions him squarely in the canon of acclaimed American artists. Yet Foulkes, now seventy-eight, remains stubbornly opposed to the pitfalls and pretensions of the gallery and museum circuit. He is a product of the midcentury American West—a cynical, eccentric figure intent on skewering our national pop culture, political institutions, and military might in equal measure.
The retrospective, which features over one hundred works, is organized chronologically. Starting with the earth-toned, textural paintings he made in the 1950s, after serving two years with the army in postwar Germany, the exhibition charts each step in Foulkes’s artistic evolution. One room is devoted to his brief flirtation with Pop Art, another to his disturbingly blood-soaked portraits from the 1970s and ’80s, several more to the vibrant mixed-media tableaux for which he is best known. Critics are quick to label Foulkes’s work as erratic and impossible to categorize, yet his sensibility and iconography remain strikingly similar throughout his career. This irreverence and consistent visual vocabulary allow Foulkes to transcend any given media; his drawings, paintings, and installation pieces all feel distinctly like him.
As it turns out, I unknowingly went through the exhibition backward—a happy accident that helped me see the commonalities among Foulkes’s works. His art is heavily influenced by the years he spent in the army and in Los Angeles, and, above all, by that paradigmatic symbol of American culture, Mickey Mouse. The artist himself is the centerpiece of many of his strongest pieces. Using the narrow lens of himself and his family, Foulkes creates bizarre, textural, eye-catching works that speak to the violent hypocrisies of American history.
His work persistently satirizes pop culture icons, particularly Mickey Mouse, the Lone Ranger, and Superman. In 1995’s The Western Viewpoint, Mickey perches on a fence amid a landscape of rolling hills, gazing quizzically at a group of Native Americans seated around a campfire. Mickey’s palpable interest in this seemingly unoccupied territory, along with the U.S. flag stuck in the ground, reference the ugly cultural imperialism that spurred the adherents of Manifest Destiny across the Great Plains. Mickey resurfaces in But I Thought Art Was Special (Mickey and Me) (1995), one of the more sinister pieces in the exhibition. We see the artist in profile, a gaping toothless hole where his mouth should be; a cutaway of his head reveals the famous mouse picking through the remnants of his brain. Like many of Foulkes’s works, the portrait is particularly unnerving because the layered materials break through the picture plane, forcing a physical connection with the viewer.
Foulkes first became interested in Walt Disney when he started dating (eventually marrying) the daughter of Ward Kimball, one of the company’s chief animators. His then father-in-law’s gift of a copy of the Mickey Mouse Club handbook sparked a decades-long fascination with the underbelly of commercial advertising, especially campaigns that target children. Disney, with its theme parks, coloring books, cartoons, songs, animated films, and toys, was, in Foulkes’s eyes, a propaganda machine, intent on brainwashing American children into complicit, patriotic citizens.
Mickey was not his only target, however. In 1991’s Where Did I Go Wrong? a dejected Clark Kent—his Superman outfit peeking out under his suit jacket—sits reading a newspaper whose headline announces the outbreak of the Persian Gulf war. In a thought bubble, Superman asks himself the question that serves as the work’s title. When Foulkes crosses the line between biting social commentary and ham-fisted rebuke, as he does here, the straightforwardness can come across like a blunt instrument. The artist is at his best when he fully embraces his weirdness, injecting a personal angle into his social critiques.
From the 1970s onward, portraiture—particularly self-portraiture—becomes a central element of Foulkes’s practice. As in But I Thought Art Was Special, the artist’s most compelling works offer glimpses into his anxiety about aging, his art, his two failed marriages, and his deep mistrust of powerful institutions. He also garnered critical attention for his Bloody Head series, a collection of disfigured portraits that he has produced on and off for over thirty years. The series provides the artist’s sharpest critique of our fractured, violent society and the human costs of war. The Golden Ruler (1985) features a perfectly coiffed Ronald Reagan with a six-inch ruler covering his eyes and blood streaming from his concealed eye sockets; in Military Business an army recruiter sits at a desk, his face similarly obscured and smeared with bright red blood.
Though his Bloody Head portraits are set against monochrome backgrounds, Foulkes typically incorporates western landscapes as the settings for his works—the backdrop for all this chaos. His vision of the West—and specifically of California—changes little over the course of his career: a lawless, dusty territory of tumbleweeds, ghost towns, and fiercely blue skies. This terrain is, for Foulkes, the locus of American contradiction—simultaneously a site of centuries-old human settlements and of virgin land ripe for the taking, a place known both for its parched deserts and for the glitz of Hollywood, a mecca for pioneers and for pimps.
The exhibition is capped with just such a desertscape: The Lost Frontier, a monumental narrative tableau that serves as an allegory for the moral and physical decay of Los Angeles. But the real masterwork is the other large-scale tableau piece, Pop (1985–90). By layering materials and playing with light and shadow, Foulkes creates a startling illusion of depth in these pieces, and each is set apart in its own darkened room to further heighten the sensory experience of viewing them. In Pop, we see an anxious-looking father (the artist, wearing a Superman costume beneath his ratty clothes) sitting in an armchair watching TV, his two children standing beside him. The scene is set inside a middle-class American home, complete with blaring television set and wood-paneled walls. Scrawled in his son’s notebook are the words: “I will be a square shooter in my home, at school, on the playground. I will be a good American.”
The abject horror on the father’s face is a response to the realization that his own children have been indoctrinated into the American cultural propaganda machine; the words on the notebook are the final lines of the Mickey Mouse Club’s creed. A jaunty song emits from the television’s speakers, reinforcing the father’s psychological distress (the song permeates the entire exhibit, providing an eerie soundtrack). Resembling a cross between Al Yankovic, Pete Stampfel, and the theme from Animaniacs, the frantic tune is actually an original song about Mickey Mouse written by Foulkes and performed by him and his children. Simultaneously amusing and unsettling, fueled by the artist’s own insecurities and rejection of the frightening conformity of middle-class culture, Pop, like Foulkes himself, is an American original.
Llyn Foulkes will be on view at the New Museum, in New York, through September 1, 2013.