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Art review: Retrospective shows Llyn Foulkes' sharp eccentricity

The best works in the Llyn Foulkes retrospective at UCLA Hammer Museum are odd. But behind the eccentricity are biting messages.

February 07, 2013|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Llyn Foulkes' "Who's on Third" is part of the retrospective.
Llyn Foulkes' "Who's on Third" is part of the retrospective. (Hammer Museum )

Llyn Foulkes is a crank. That's a good thing, because we need cranks.

I might not want to sit next to one on the subway or listen to one give a floor-speech in Congress. But popular culture and institutional art have a way of smoothing out or even debasing life's often painful rawness. Works of art offer contemplative distance, which can make zealous eccentricity especially riveting.

Take "The Corporate Kiss" (2001), a bracing bit of strangeness that is on view in the sprawling, 50-year retrospective exhibition of Foulkes' art newly opened at the UCLA Hammer Museum. In it, Mickey Mouse stands on a man's shoulder and plants a big cheerful smooch on his cheek. The man, beleaguered and despondent, barely responds.

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His careworn face expels an open-mouthed sigh, downcast eyes staring from beneath a furrowed brow. A bleak, empty brown desert unfurls behind the pair, beneath a limpid blue sky.

In this painting's gonzo reinterpretation of the biblical kiss of Judas, which launched the physical, emotional and spiritual suffering of the Christian Passion, the betrayal of art by popular culture is on frank display. Disney's famous, empire-building rodent is cast as Judas, keeper of the 30 silver pieces; the man's careworn face is a self-portrait, making the artist the abandoned savior.

Foulkes is a long way from Giotto's famously heartbreaking rendition of the subject at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance. Here, a personal narrative is embedded in the picture.

Born to modest circumstances in a central Washington farming town in 1934, Foulkes came to Los Angeles in 1957 to study at the Chouinard Art Institute. Three years later he married the daughter of Ward Kimball, one of the celebrated team of Disney animators known as the Nine Old Men. (The couple later divorced.) Kimball published a 1975 book titled "Art Afterpieces," in which famous masterpieces were updated in absurd contemporary terms — Mona Lisa bedecked in hair curlers, for example, or tan lines on a Degas nude.

"The Corporate Kiss" follows a similar path, but the joke is transformed into a social portrait of considerable despair. The painting is actually a relief, with features built up, scraped down and built up again, and the tattered plaid shirt and thermal jersey added as collage. The surface is as weathered as the man while Mickey's swollen cheeks are like a tumor.

Partly the work succeeds by refusing polarization and self-aggrandizement. Foulkes is on record as a great admirer of Kimball's abundant skills. More important, the story of the Judas kiss is not a simple tale of good and evil, saintliness versus immorality, since without it the biblical narrative of salvation could not blossom. The man who is kissed is complicit in the tragedy. "The Corporate Kiss" is a contemporary portrait of human frailty.

Certainly it's odd. So are all the best works in Foulkes' retrospective, organized by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick.

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That's because much of it forces an unholy alliance between incompatible artistic urges. One is Expressionism, the other Pop art.

Expressionism speaks of private, deeply personal impulses, which spill out from primal motivations. Pop, by contrast, manifests itself in more anonymous, socially constructed ways.

The show opens with a group of drawings made during Foulkes' childhood, when he had aspirations to become a cartoonist. Great cartoons are pop culture's underbelly, their nutty raucousness navigating life's madhouse.

The next gallery introduces black and brown paintings, often bleak, that Foulkes made after art school — an era when Abstract Expressionism held sway. By then he had spent two years in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany, where the grimness of the charred postwar landscape was everywhere.

These early paintings engage Beat Generation elements familiar from Ed Kienholz and Wallace Berman, with their recycling of broken, cast-off objects. An awareness of Jasper Johns' use of letters, numbers and collage is also apparent.

In the third room, Expressionism and Pop collide — and the show begins to percolate.

The chief drawback is that, at nearly 140 paintings and mixed-media works, plus a slew of juvenilia, the crowded exhibition is way too big. Foulkes' esteem has waxed and waned over the decades, and the job of a retrospective like this is to secure the artist's reputation by making the strongest case. It needs editing by at least one-third.

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In the 1960s and early 1970s Foulkes looked to postcards, commercial signs, magazines, comics and other sources in mass reproduction. Social trauma lurks in the pop motifs.

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