Art review: Retrospective shows Llyn Foulkes' sharp eccentricity

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.

"Junction #410" (1963), painted in the traumatic year of JFK's assassination, features a barren photographic hill, reproduced six times down the right side of a big canvas like a movie-frame stuck in a projector. A "caution yellow" border on the other side, plus diagonal black bars marching across the center, turn Frank Stella's mute geometric Minimalism into an evocative end-of-the-road warning.

This dead-end theme turns up again in a completely different way in "Portrait of Leo Gorcey" (1969), named for the actor who starred in a series of Hollywood movies about Depression-era street kids. The cracks and shadows in its 9-foot monolith of desert rocks harbor apocalyptic suggestions of corpses embedded in the stone.

The painting is one in a recurrent series. Disconcertingly, their fields of color are pleasant pastels. With Martin Luther King dead in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy assassinated in L.A., bodies piling up in Vietnam and Gov. Ronald Reagan on the ascendancy after sending police into UC Berkeley, Foulkes' dissonant rock paintings form a creepy "monument valley."

Benign cruelty continues in another extensive series of more than two dozen "bloody heads." All are men. Their eyes are obscured by cascading blood, geometric shapes, collages and anything else that might strip them of distinctive individuality.

Around 1990, though, the wheels started to come off Foulkes' art-wagon. Big, ambitious, mixed-media reliefs — sort of contemporary history paintings — are erratic in the extreme, some powerful and others blandly ineffective. Desolate paintings on subjects like Operation Desert Storm and fundamentalist Christian bigotry are merely fervent rants.

Perhaps the problem was caused by the rousing success of "Pop" (1985-'90), a marvelously bizarre sound-and-light installation on which Foulkes worked for five years. This homey tableau, set in a suburban living room, shows a young girl resting a gentle hand on the arm of her bug-eyed, TV-watching father, who holds a plastic cup of Coke in one hand and his wrist in the other, as if searching for a pulse. We look over the shoulder of a blank-faced boy in the foreground, able to read the Mickey Mouse Club oath he has copied into a composition book.

The scrawny father's unbuttoned shirt reveals the red-and-yellow logo of Superman underneath, while a gun is holstered at his waist — as if a genuine superhero might need one. The ruin of the nuclear family is underscored by the Hiroshima mushroom cloud rising on a calendar page on the back wall.

Foulkes had built an elaborate, outlandish musical instrument out of car horns, a xylophone, organ pipes and cowbells, and "Pop" is accompanied by a soundtrack featuring a woozy, rewritten rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" played on it in the satirical manner of Spike Jones. Your eyes bug out at the painting, just like the father aghast at the TV.

Foulkes will perform on his instrument, called the Machine, on Feb. 26. As a snappy catalog essay by Jim Lewis puts it, a "one-man band" is an inherent contradiction in terms. The clash is akin to an Expressionist Pop art, a dissonant conflict ideal for carrying Foulkes' recurrent theme of travesty — social, cultural, personal, environmental and political. When he pulls it off it's a sight to behold.

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Llyn Foulkes

Where: UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: Through May 19. Closed Mondays.

Contact: (310) 443-7000, http://www.hammer.ucla.edu

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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