With its role as the hotbed of contemporary aesthetics a distant memory, these days New York serves primarily as the art world’s souk—the clearinghouse for work from everywhere else. And like any market, it’s subject to periodic flooding by product from a particular region.
Such has been the case this season, with an unmistakable Left Coast terroir clinging to much of the exhibition fare thanks to an impressive roster of Golden State talent: Jay DeFeo, Robert Irwin, Paul McCarthy, Ken Price, James Turrell. Plus, there’s more on the horizon, with major surveys of Chris Burden and Mike Kelley coming this fall.
While welcome, this influx is somewhat ironic from a historical standpoint, as many of the artists (who, not counting the deceased, are in their sixties and seventies) emerged at a time when Los Angles and the Bay Area were very much in New York’s shadow. This is certainly true of Llyn Foulkes, whose mixed-media paintings are the subject of this New Museum retrospective. A fixture of L.A.’s art scene since its inception five decades ago, Foulkes is a local legend, though his work has been underexposed in New York. The NewMu aims to remedy that oversight, but based on the evidence, it has a hard row to hoe.
Foulkes’s efforts aren’t uninteresting, or flat-out bad, exactly, but they are erratic to the point of solipsism. His work is strangely off-putting in a manner that’s presumably deliberate, though perhaps a bit too effectively so.
Foulkes’s output over the years ranges from murky postwar abstractions and experiments with hyperrealism to mixed-media portrait heads and panoramic compositions, whose surfaces are piled in deep relief. Concomitantly, his style has evolved from Expressionism to a quirky mix of folk and Pop Art. All the while, he’s remained something of an existential landscapist, adding the role of social satirist over the past 30 years or so, most obviously in a series of paintings that limn the American Dream as a corporate sham, a terrain blasted by an overbearing patriarchy and self-delusion.
Foulkes, then, is a lite version of West Coast peers such as Edward Kienholz and McCarthy. He lacks their ambition of scale, however, as well as the courage of conviction that allowed them to conveniently ignore the moment when a deconstruction of macho swagger became indistinguishable from bluster itself. In comparison, Foulkes’s approach seems passive-aggressive.
The exhibition begins in the early 1960s, with the artist channeling his Army service, and his experience of the horrors of war, into a group of semiabstract canvases and tableaux. One piece—whose overall palette is a dark brown, somewhere between beef gravy and cough syrup—is notable for its textural effect, in which Foulkes seems to have daubed the still-drying paint with an old dress, leaving its impression behind. This use of fabric becomes a signature in his later work, including the best things in the show, a pair of monumental late-1960s canvases depicting rock formations.
These last two images, along with similar ones made at the same time, garnered Foulkes critical acclaim and sales. But instead of pushing the formula, he abandoned it for what would become his best-known pieces: the so-called bloody heads. Many of the examples presented here are ganged, salon-style, on a single wall, and in them, Foulkes transforms the genre of great-man portraiture—familiar from boardrooms, libraries and mansions—into a cartoonish rogues’ gallery of sanguinary male monsters, covered in gore.
Starting in the late 1980s, Foulkes began to focus his attention on a particularly important Angeleno: Walt Disney. Foulkes’s brother-in-law worked for Disney, and he passed along a company handbook, which detailed the Magic Kingdom’s marketing strategy. Somehow, this information outraged Foulkes enough for him to decide to declare Disney and his most iconic creation, Mickey Mouse, the symbols of American corruption.
The results, to put it mildly, are nutty. One painting depicts a young Disney with the world literally in his hand, while Cinderella Castle floats on a cloud in the background. His brow is gashed open, and we can see Mickey clawing his way out of one of Walt’s eyes, while the other sheds a single tear. (For what, though, is unclear.) Another piece along the same lines presents a vista of the Los Angeles basin, seen from the surrounding hills. The middle ground is filled with trash, as closer in, Mickey surmounts a promontory. Actually, it’s Mickey’s head stuck on the body of a pioneer woman, complete with lace-trimmed gingham dress; to top things off, the figure carries an assault rifle. The immediate foreground holds a seated Native American obscured in shadow, as well as Foulkes himself, with his back to the viewer. This painting is installed in its own room, bathed in theatrical lighting, as is another, of the distraught artist surrounded by his family.
One can only marvel at the synthesis of overwrought and repressed emotions evident here, and note, as well, the artist’s frequent confusion of self-pity with self-parody. It’s appropriate that the exhibition kicks off by referring to Foulkes’s stint in the military, since his work, both individual pieces and the entire trajectory of his career, seems jumpy and nervous, as if it suffers from PTSD. In more ways than one, the show leaves you wanting, somehow, to make it all better for the artist, though you know you can’t.—Howard Halle