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Llyn Foulkes' art of raw emotion

Llyn Foulkes has been a man apart, but his work is gathering acclaim for its strange power.

October 28, 2012|By Holly Myers
  • Work by Llyn Foulkes appeared in seven Pacific Standard Time exhibitions and at the Venice Biennale and Documenta. Coming: a Hammer Museum retrospective.
Work by Llyn Foulkes appeared in seven Pacific Standard Time exhibitions… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Painter and musician Llyn Foulkes grew up in Yakima, Wash., largely among women. His father left home when Foulkes was a baby, and the youngster filled the gap with idols like Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali and the comedic musician Spike Jones, whom Foulkes fondly refers to as "second fathers." "The only thing I ever wanted to be as a kid was a famous cartoonist," he says. "Or a famous musician, have a band like Stan Kenton. It was always famous, all I wanted to be."

"I was this beautiful little boy, and my mother's sisters would say things to me like, 'Oh, don't you think he looks just like William Holden?' They'd compare me to movie actors," he says by way of explanation. "So I grew up thinking the only way you're going to be loved is if you become famous. I think there are a lot of people that happened to. I can identify."

Foulkes' relationship to fame is a complicated issue, one that haunts his paintings and songs — which are filled with defeated Supermen, aimless Lone Rangers and violently bloodied public figures — no less than it does his career trajectory. The standard line, at least among admirers, is that a hard-hitting painting style, a cranky personality and a proven inability to keep from speaking his mind have, since his first brush with success in the 1960s, denied him his share of the beneficence bestowed upon peers like Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari. There's some truth to that, but it's a narrative so frequently dwelt upon that it threatens to overshadow his many real successes, both critical and material (he counts Brad Pitt and French tycoon François Pinault among his collectors).

What's more, the tide shows signs of turning again — and in a manner that looks to be definitive. Foulkes' work appeared in seven Pacific Standard Time exhibitions last fall and shone consistently for its prescience, its strangeness and its raw emotional power. Against the historical backdrop of PST, his tortured portraits and existentially vacant landscapes appeared fresher and more contemporary than most contemporary work.

Yet, like the massive three-dimensional tableau he's undertaken more recently, which he builds up over years using sculptural materials like wood and fabric and exhibits in darkened rooms with theatrical lighting, the paintings have a stateliness, a drama, that sets them apart from current trends as well. Art has taken a turn for the rational in recent decades, but Foulkes' work is filled with emotion: anger, indignation, fear, disappointment and melancholy, as well as humor, sarcasm and, especially in the music, play.

Over the summer Foulkes was included in the Venice Biennale, and at Documenta in Germany he exhibited two major tableau paintings and entertained visitors for a solid month on his "Machine," an immense apparatus of drums, car horns and other musical instruments with which he's been performing as a one-man band for 30 years. In the spring, the Hammer Museum will mount a major retrospective, curated by Ali Subotnick.

"Llyn has been on the verge of getting his due for 50 years now," says former Museum of Contemporary Art curator Paul Schimmel, who gave Foulkes prominent placement in his seminal exhibition "Helter Skelter" in 1992, and again in "Under the Big Black Sun" last fall. "He was part of the legendary Ferus group back in the '60s. He had a one-person show at the Pasadena Art Museum when it was the hippest place in town. He was super successful.

But what I like about Llyn is that on the verge of success, he almost always says the wrong thing, makes the wrong move. He is somebody who perennially zigs when he should zag, which I think, in some ways, has kept his art very pure."

At 77, Foulkes is wiry and energetic, with sparkling blue eyes and a vaudevillian charm that balances curiously against an acerbic temperament. His unusual brand of etiquette is apparent from the first in our own introduction, when he bluntly informs me that I am both younger and thinner than he expected me to be. It's clear from the conversation that follows, however, that the philosophical inclinations of age have softened many of the sharper edges.

In his social life, as in his work, he has always kept himself slightly apart: He taught only briefly, at UCLA, and says he rarely goes to openings. Despite the animated nature of his persona while performing, he is described by many who know him as a bit of a loner.

The studio where he has lived and worked since moving from Topanga after his second divorce in 1997, in the Brewery complex downtown, echoes the shape of his life in its three distinct regions. The front door opens into a large painting studio, scattered these days with half-finished smaller works and promising scraps. His Machine resides next door, in a rehearsal space and performance venue that he's dubbed "The Church of Art."

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