S​etting the Tone

A Primeval Llyn Foulkes

“Sometimes I feel like one of the last individuals, I really do.” —Llyn Foulkes

Engaging chameleonic change as a practice in its own right, artist and musician Llyn Foulkes (b. 1934) is a manifestly Los Angeles artist. “I didn’t belong any place else,” Foulkes reflected in 1997, “I mean, I always had such deep feelings about Los Angeles.” Born in Washington, Foulkes moved to Los Angeles in 1957 after a stint in the military, attending the Chouinard Art Institute until 1959; his first solo exhibition was held at Ferus Gallery in 1961. Foulkes painted lot 99, simply titled T, during this early period of recognition, prior to the many pivots that would come to characterize his creative trajectory. The atypical T-shaped canvas is a textured abstraction, its surface appearing smeared away, and, upon closer inspection, alternately cracked, splattered, and incised with hard-to-decipher lettering.

As Thomas Micchelli wrote on the occasion of Foulkes’ major retrospective in 2013: “The neo-Dada/neo-Kienholz/neo-Rauschenberg/black/brown/gray matter of his debut efforts is absolutely nothing like the mordant, hyper-illusionistic tableaux…that the artist started making in 1983.” And so what? While it was the works created in the 1980s and later (including lot 100, Now is the Time), some of which were featured in Paul Schimmel’s seminal “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s,” that arguably solidified Foulkes’ reputation, it is a hallmark of the individual to embody contradictions — and to change. Perhaps, in this sense, lot 99 might be considered representative of Foulkes’ primordial phase, a dark and moody void setting the stage for both the pointed cultural critiques and personal mercurialism that would emerge in the decades to follow.

Llyn Foulkes b. 1934

Llyn Foulkes was born in 1934 in Yakima, Washington and began studying music and art at a young age. He started playing music at eleven-years-old, inspired by the satirical and novelty bandleader Spike Jones. Foulkes first ventures into visual art were copying comic books and he had aspirations to be a cartoonist. He studied music at Central Washington College for a short time before being drafted into the Army in 1954. While in Germany, he worked on small watercolors and drawings and also absorbed the dark and devastating atmosphere of post-war Germany. After serving in the army for two years, Foulkes moved to Los Angles in 1957 to attend the progressive Chouinard Art Institute, which was founded by Walt Disney and later became California Institute of the Arts. His classmates there included other 20th century luminaries such as Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, celebrated Disney animators and costume designer Edith Head, as well as his future wife, Kelly Kimball, the daughter of one of the head animators at Disney, to whom he married in 1958. Foulkes found the structure of the school stifling and only attended for two years.

Foulkes began showing his work at Ferus Gallery in 1959, then run by famed curator Walter Hopps. Instead of focusing on the social aspects of cultivating his art career, Foulkes committed himself to his family and his art practice, driving a taxi during the day. Foulkes’ visual work is marked by an anti-establishment contrarianism that rages against art as commodification. His work can be somewhat elusive; instead of settling into any one medium or predictable style, Foulkes weaves together music, painting, assemblage, illustration and collage to create works of irreverence and caustic satire that take on materialism, repressed sexuality, violence, greed and humanity’s (especially America’s) propensity toward these moral deprivations.

The work gaining momentum in the 1960s in Los Angeles was more concerned with traditional aspects of aesthetics and was characterized by light, space, minimalism and a cool detachment. Foulkes was more aligned with poets and outsider artists such as George Herms, Wallace Berman, Edward Keinholz, thus he always remained a bit on the margins of the prevailing art scene, creating works centered on constructed memory, violence, disfigurement and political figures. He was also part of several bands throughout the 1960s and 1970s, including The Rubber Band, with artist R. Crumb and has been refining his one-man band contraption, The Machine, since 1979.

It has been said of Foulkes’ work that it is re-discovered every ten years. It may be more accurate to say that Foulkes reinvents his work every ten years. Ever restless, creating out of a fume of discontent, Foulkes is never content to settle into one mode. In the 1980s, rocks and archetypal western American landscapes, rendered with a dry, unromantic tone started to figure prominently in his work, accompanied by American cultural touchstones such as Mickey Mouse, superheroes, guns, vacation postcards and the Lone Ranger. After decades of creating art through a lens of critiquing the myths, histories, personalities and problematic psyches of American culture, Foulkes’ work of the 1990s and 2000s took yet another turn. His paintings became more introspective, examining the psychological aspects of death and his own ego, fears and beliefs, utilizing the motifs that have run through the entirety of his singular body of work.

Interest in Foulkes’ work continues to come in waves, growing in substance and esteem each time. A major retrospective of his work was held at The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles in 2013, following inclusions at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. Foulkes continues to work from his home and studio in downtown Los Angeles, in a space he calls the Church of Art.

Auction Results Llyn Foulkes