ART : He’s an Angry Man, but It Isn’t Personal : The fire that still drives the work of Llyn Foulkes has changed directions--to politics, the art world and life itself.
At an age when most artists have left their angry-young-man phase well behind them, Llyn Foulkes continues to wave that flag with fury. Midway through a meeting at his Topanga Canyon studio, the 60-year-old painter erupts with the despairing declaration: “It’s just so unfair!” It, of course, is everything from the politics of the art world to life itself.
Foulkes’ unflagging indignation at the stacked deck we wrestle with is touching, and he has a tireless capacity for getting his dander up; he has a long list of pet peeves and a direct way of expressing them. “All that ‘80s Neo-Expressionist crap,” he snorts derisively for openers. “Those people couldn’t paint--that work was mediocre, corporate stuff and all good painters knew it.”
The subject of “Llyn Foulkes: Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” a retrospective curated by Marilu Knode opening Saturday, at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, is legendary for his ability to shoot himself in the foot when it comes to career etiquette. His antagonism toward art-world politics has no doubt contributed to the fact that this survey, which travels to Oakland, Purchase, N.Y., and Palm Springs after closing here Jan. 21, is long overdue.
Staunchly traditional in the high premium he places on the ability to handle light and space on a two-dimensional plane, Foulkes looks askance at many of the turns art has taken in the 20th Century. “Light, space, form, color, spirituality--that’s what art was about before [Marcel] Duchamp killed it by saying anything can be art. Ever since then people have sneered at the idea of working with your hands,” he observes. “Still, I know there’s a relationship between my hand and the materials I use, and that when those two things meet something happens.”
Something happens, indeed. Foulkes’ work is on fire with a savage emotionality. Beginning his career with a fractured approach to portraiture and landscape that incorporated serial imagery, passages of pure abstraction and elements of assemblage, his early work resonated with a chaos at odds with its formal structure. Mute, iconic images of cows and rocks came next, and they in turn gave way to the harrowing body of work Foulkes calls “bloody heads.” Posed in the manner of cliche portraiture, these images of heads have been defiled to an unimaginable extreme. Eyes obscured, parts of the face scraped away, scalps ripped back, skulls warped and asymmetrical, these profoundly wounded images of violation and pain are reminiscent of work by Francis Bacon in their evocation of psychic terror.
Foulkes’ studio is a modest room filled with several works in progress (he tends to fiddle with his paintings for years), and a massive, one-man-band musical instrument called “The Machine” that’s best described as a synthesizer made out of junkyard scrap. Needless to say, no one but Foulkes, who’s spent a lifetime honing his musical skills along with his art, can operate it.
Born in Yakima, Wash., the younger in a family of two children, Foulkes recalls that the trauma began for him at the age of 2, when his father abandoned the family.
“I got lots of attention as a child, but it was the wrong kind of attention--I was surrounded by people telling me, ‘You should be a movie star because you’re such a beautiful little boy!’ The message I got was that the only worthwhile people were movie stars, and that love is contingent on what the world thinks of you.”
By the time Foulkes was 5 it was clear he had a facility for drawing, and a talent for music surfaced a few years later when, at the age of 11, he discovered the music of Spike Jones and developed a similar act of his own. His interest in Jones was followed by a teen-age infatuation with jazz, and his developing creative sensibility took yet another turn when he was 19 and came across the work of Salvador Dali. “That was the first art I saw that I could identify with,” he says.
Graduating from high school in 1952, Foulkes enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle. His college career was disrupted in 1954, however, when he was drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany.
“I went to all the museums overseas and they were incredible,” he recalls. “While I was there I also walked through lots of bombed-out buildings and visited Dachau, trying to imagine what it must’ve been like to be in Germany during the war. That was terrifying because I realized that most of the charming people I met in Germany knew what was going on in their country during the war. They let it happen, and the same thing could happen here.”
Following his discharge from the Army in 1956, Foulkes came to L.A. to attend Chouinard Art Institute, and also had a brief, but unhappy reunion with his father. He stayed at Chouinard from 1957 to ’59; Foulkes left school two years before graduation because he felt ready to begin his life as a practicing artist. Evidently he was right about that, because the following year he landed a show at the hippest space in town, the Ferus Gallery. “The show was well received,” Foulkes says, “but two of the big Ferus artists didn’t like me so I got the boot.”
In 1961 Foulkes married his first wife, Kelly Kimble, whom he’d met while both were attending Chouinard, and a year later they had a daughter. (Laurey Foulkes, now 33, is an L.A.-based artist.) “That was a tormented time for me and everything I made was black,” Foulkes remembers. “I was angry at my father and was discouraged by most of what I saw going on in the art world.
“Things worked differently in the art world then, and in ways it was better--you could submit your paintings to a museum, for instance, and get a show,” he adds. “The second show I had was at the Pasadena Museum, and I was nobody then. Work started pouring out of me after the Pasadena show, but unfortunately I got caught up in the art scene then, and my work started to go flat. By 1967 I couldn’t paint at all--the magic was gone and I got terribly depressed. I used to just lie down in the middle of the room and cry.
“By 1969, my whole life was falling apart; I’d split up with my wife, couldn’t paint and hadn’t shown in five years. I owed a show to the David Stuart Gallery, and even though nothing was happening in the studio, I knocked out a show of big paintings in three months--I could do it, but there was no feeling in it. It blew my mind when museums from around the world bought those paintings because I knew they were no good--they were just buying my trademark, and that depressed me more.”
Foulkes’ downward spiral ended after his divorce in 1970, when he met psychoanalyst Kati Breckenridge at a party. “The minute we met I fell for her,” he recalls. “We married in 1971, I went into therapy and work started pouring out of me again.
“I built the ‘Machine’ in 1973, formed a band, got signed to A&M; Records, and within a year we’d been invited to be the house band on the ‘Tonight Show’ for two weeks. Things were happening so fast with the band that my ego got way out of control,” he confesses. “I was on a big power trip, so the band broke up.” (Foulkes will perform at the museum Nov. 9.)
Following the demise of the band, Foulkes’ emotional life continued to stabilize with the birth of a daughter in 1976 and a son in 1978 (Jenny and Breck Foulkes both hope to have careers in music). The action in his studio continued at a vigorous clip too--in 1983 he began being represented by dealer Patricia Faure, and a whole new audience was introduced to his work when it was included in MOCA’s popular yet hugely controversial show of 1992, “Helter Skelter.”
Ultimately, the evolution of Foulkes’ work could be described as a journey from the interior to the exterior. His art used to be about what was going on in his head; now it tends to explore what’s going on in the world. He’s something of a muckraker and recent paintings have addressed everything from the Gulf War and callous land developers, to guns and abortion. The look of the work has changed too; Foulkes is now toying with optical illusion and though his current paintings appear to be flat, they in fact verge on the sculptural in that their surfaces tend to be built in the manner of dioramas.
“The thing that drove my early work was anger of a very personal sort,” he says. “Anger still drives the work, but it’s moved from the personal to the universal. I look around and see a world completely shaped by corporate greed, and the thing that amazes me the most is that everybody isn’t as angry as I am. Why aren’t people demanding a better world?”
* “Llyn Foulkes: Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach. Saturday through Jan. 21. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (714) 494-8971.