Llyn Foulkes’ recent mixed-media paintings manifest what the 82-year-old artist calls “Old Man Blues.” In many respects, however, the lamentation has been underway ever since Foulkes began regular exhibitions of his distinctive, Pop-inflected brand of Expressionist art more than 50 years ago.
“To Bernie, From Llyn,” one of 38 mostly small works in his show at Sprüth Magers Gallery in L.A., is emblematic. A tattered photograph featuring an unremarkable lineup of five high-ranking military officers, all male, is collaged on a piece of plywood about a foot on one side. The border is painted sky-blue, the photographic background obliterated with steel-gray color.
As he often does, Foulkes slightly reduced the heads’ contours using the background paint to make the cranium a bit too small for the accompanying body. A disturbing pin-head appearance results. These stiff, beribboned old soldiers look like extras from “Freaks,” Tod Browning’s unsettling movie dating to Foulkes’ Depression-era childhood.
Their obliterated faces are smeared with brushy daubs of red paint, the men’s specific identities finally irrelevant. The raw-meat color is repeated in a swatch of crimson fabric glued over their bodies and printed with the word “anger” in black.
Blood and guts, the nickname for another “Old Man,” Gen. George S. Patton, comes to mind, creating a simmering geriatric stew. It further resonates with the red-white-and-blue painting’s dedication to Sen. Bernie Sanders, erstwhile antiwar candidate for president.
The painting is a pointed rant, but what prevents it from being merely a self-satisfying one is the layered ambiguity of the enterprise. No doubt the swatch cut from printed cloth originally read “danger,” which suggests a context for both military action and the artist’s reaction. Whose fierce anger and what terrible danger is finally on display — the soldiers’ or Foulkes’?
The show includes three large-scale, intricately assembled reliefs. One has a splayed black man adrift in a dinghy prominently labeled “Trump Lifeboat Co.” Swirls of smooth, polished wood-grain quietly evoke a turbulent sea or sky.
Another is a bleak nocturnal landscape, its safety-first pedestrian crossing sign marred by adjacent graffiti of a swastika. The inky sky is a sheet of black velvet dotted by hundreds of stars made from pins stabbed into the cloth, as if the art were a voodoo doll.
The third is a self-portrait. A roughly life-size profile photograph of Foulkes, trailed by an animal’s flayed skin, is heading toward a flash of golden light that is either blissful nirvana or a blistering conflagration. Heaven is indistinguishable from hell.
Eyes downcast, he tosses a rag into a trash bin. The ambitious picture’s complexity tells no tale of an artist truly throwing in the towel, though, beyond the simple certainty of mortality.
Sprüth Magers Gallery, 5900 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Through March 4; closed Sundays and Mondays. (323) 634-0600, www.spruethmagers.com