Mickey Meets Surrealism

John Haber
in New York City

Llyn Foulkes

In the fall of 2011, a gallery surveyed a career of more than fifty years now with just seven paintings. For Llyn Foulkes, a retrospective does not so much fill in the gaps as add something even more telling, his obsession. It looks back even today, beyond Pop Art and LA art in the present, to an American Surrealism. Yet it pays a heavy price for its brooding, with images that, often as not, never mean much to anyone but him.

On the rocks

I confess: when I think of rocks in art, I think first not of the breathtaking canyons welcoming the Hudson River School to an expanding America. I think not of a Renaissance painter's artfully sculpted stone—or the slope that, for Giotto, carries even the grief of angels to the Pietà. Yes, I know that a cliff gives way of its own accord to sunlight and Bellini's Saint Francis. Llyn Foulkes's Eagle Rock (Andrea Rosen gallery, 1985)And you know, the shift in Nativity scenes from Byzantine caves to crude Italian huts actually says something about a growing humanism. Scholars have written to prove it.

But no, like most people, I think of René Magritte and his late Castle of the Pyrenees, floating blissfully and treacherously in midair. I have a feeling that Llyn Foulkes knows them all, too, but he seems most like a late postscript to American Surrealism as seen through the eyes of Pop Art and LA. Magritte himself might have pulled off the first work on view in Chelsea, on a scale between a sketch and an old-fashioned easel painting. It looks smaller still, for Foulkes has framed it with the illusion of handwritten sums on raw wood. A flag drapes a headless but humanoid rock out of the Venus de Milo, leaving only two bare bumps like breasts. Naturally he calls it The Two I Love Most, and naturally the math does not add up.

Cal Arts types may lag behind the times now and then, but Foulkes, an artist and musician born in 1934, comes as a nice surprise. Besides, surfers out there must know some nice rocks. Just seven works cover almost thirty years while sticking to a single theme, in conjunction with the retrospective on its way to New York. The works never quite fit with their times, and they never simply look back. A smear from from 1963 has something of automatism, beat poetry, and mid-century abstraction. Yet the rough textures, blue-green monochrome, and irony of Happy Rock, from 1969, presage Mark Tansey.

It does not look very happy. An eyehole might make the rock into a profile, a totem, or an allegory, but of what? Foulkes is not going to settle for monuments or castles. He keeps creature comforts or even creatures at a distance, too. Postcard of 1964 and Carte Postal of 1975 each bear a cryptic dedication. Yet they speak less of direct human connection than of an obsessive collector, a curtailed vacation, or a bad dream.

One also has a U.S. stamp and the other a border of black-and-yellow stripes, like a warning sign for roadwork up ahead. From now on, symbols of America will not come without warnings. In Eagle Rock of 1985, the bird of the title flies over the mountain, but only in outline. It might have strayed in from currency without certifying its own worth. Spatters of paint add a rare trace of color and a sign of rain. Drip painting here comes at best in quotes.

Of those seven works, the large last painting also has the hardest-edge realism. Lost Horizon from 1991 also incorporates collage and more overt anxiety. This time a bird flies upside down, while a man looks stuck in a crevice between icy peaks and reptilian moss. Should he ever pull himself out, he will find another flag left lying in place of triumph and a soda can bashed into the base of a tree trunk. He will also have to pull himself past the can's pull-top first. Surrealism and LA art alike run the risk of a cartoon, but that may make them pertinent all over again.

"Where did I go wrong?"

The New Museum retrospective looks much smaller than its hundred objects. Its compact arrangement runs at times to Salon style, because once Foulkes hits on a theme, he cannot let go. By the end, a single painting has become an ongoing project, from the 1990s to the present. It also hides behind a black curtain, harshly lit in a darkened room, like a theater of the mind. Like most of his late work, it features the artist. While his greatest subject is America, he is arguing all along, just short of violently, not with his country alone but with himself.

Not that he lives altogether in his head, although he does live outside New York, which to the art scene is probably much the same thing. He had his first solo show back in 1961 at LA's legendary Ferus Gallery, and his compulsive horror show has its parallel in Bay Area artists like Ed Kienholz, Bruce Conner, and Jay DeFeo. A video shows him quite happy in public, playing vibes to a reasonably large and adoring audience at the Hammer Museum, where the retrospective began. The music is relaxed too, with an easy swing, and Foulkes has said that music is his joy, painting his angst. But then much of his argument with himself takes place on the turf of popular culture. Kids sing along to "America the Beautiful" for a second painting in the dark, at once jazzy and sinister.

The argument begins early. The museum catches him as a teenager and aspiring cartoonist, with a rawness to both the drawing and the speech. He tracks closely a humor close to cynicism bubbling up beneath the veneer of 1950s America. Almost thirty years later, he receives The Mickey Mouse Club Handbook from his father-in-law, an animator at Disney, and "Mickey Rat" starts to stand for what he calls the brainwashing of America. The Lone Ranger soon lies dead, killed by a child with a gun, while Mickey leans casually against a classical column, the mouse's head pasted on a frontier woman's dress. Before long, a toy gun molded by Foulkes himself aims straight at an image of the artist's children. Superman takes over in the 1990s, only to wonder, "Where did I go wrong?"

Maybe he went wrong even before the artist left Washington State in 1954, first for the draft and then for Southern California. After all, the symbol of American goodness and strength was an exile from another planet, and so perhaps was Foulkes in the late twentieth century. His obsession parallels Jasper Johns with the American flag or Andy Warhol with Jackie, and his first studio had room for taxidermy that would do Robert Rauschenberg proud. With a mix of paint and objects in the 1980s, Foulkes is making not so much collage as what Rauschenberg called a combine painting. Yet he seems to belong to a older era, to the point that the appearance of a bloodied Ronald Reagan as the Golden Ruler comes as a surprise. Then, too, the Mickey Mouse Club was attempting a revival well after its golden age, and Superman lost his cool with the arrival of Marvel Comics.

For all the jazz, Foulkes is still less a Pop artist than an American Surrealist—even more so in a retrospective. A landscape from 1953 imitates Salvador Dalí, although already with brawny inhabitants, leaps in scale, and surely the artist's own legs cut off in the foreground. A collage on paper speaks of The Importance of Being Max Ernst. Collage from the early 1960s has the frames and compartments of Joseph Cornell, but with a blackened head ripped in half. A 1962 series, "New Paintings of Common Objects," sounds like something out of a handbook for Surrealism, not Mickey Mouse. His rocks in the mid-1960s owe more to René Magritte and Surrealist drawing than to Eagle Rock, his actual neighborhood west of Pasadena.

Even the darkness cannot free itself of the past. Paintings from 1961 frame black clouds with ghostly outlines, like an eviscerated corpse. Assemblages of charred wood and confused alphabets allude at once to a burned school in LA and the Holocaust. Foulkes never goes through a period in debt to Abstract Expressionism, as if something in him had died too soon for that, in World War II. Still, he is starting to discover America, and he does not like what he finds. Like Warhol, he sees a tragedy unfolding, but not within a common ground like popular culture itself.

Landscape for sale

The traces of western landscape start with thick swirls of found white plastic. As with Sam Moyer now in Moyer's fabric and marble, the illusion of creased and discarded plastic takes on the texture of a rockface. Three more series in the 1960s bring Foulkes back to two dimensions, as metaphors for a wide but emotionally blank continent. The Postcard paintings mime collage with the illusion of stamps and postmarks, while other paintings combine mountains with highway stripes. Mountains also stand alone, in one case with the identical image painted twice. Where Postmodernism debunks the originality of the avant-garde, Foulkes worries more about the authenticity of postwar America.

The mountains are vivid. They are a display of skill, but also of the implicit lack of originality in photorealism—again that argument first and foremost with himself. They also sometimes add a covering tint, like some kind of photo processing, but also the first real break in a style near to black and white. Naturally the second break comes with a visit to a mortuary, although Foulkes had already painted a cow. An otter's limb reminds him of the finger of god for Michelangelo. Starting in 1971, he also sees human blood.

The bloody heads let loose his obsessions. They differ mostly in what blanks out the eyes. With the 1980s, the eyes return, and so do corpses, color, and Mickey. By pursuing one image to its limits, that bloodied head, he breaks the frame. He also breaks into politics. He pursues assemblages only a little further in the 1990s, with three notable additions, and from that point on he never lets go.

He adds narrative, as with George Washington presiding over a landscape "for sale." He adds thickly molded acrylic, picking up on the earlier rocks but that much more macabre. And he adds himself. These paintings strive to make a statement, in every conceivable way. One leaves marveling at their intricacy—and at the discovery of someone working all along beyond the horizon of New York. I could feel his relevance around the block that very day right, as Aaron Williams covered the Alps with the textures of abstraction and two bare legs.

Foulkes enters his art at much the same time as Superman, because both are asking about their loss of hope in the present. The curators, Ali Subotnick of the Hammer with the New Museum's Margot Norton, see a new optimism in a head covered with words like equality, love, and truth. Maybe, but they share the space with starvation, hate, and fear. The argument plays out within a single mind, as thought balloons for an artist who has grown to hate comics. In the last darkened room, he looks in terror at a landscape baked by local politics and global warming. Micky stands guard with a semi-automatic weapon over a discarded microwave and a vision of LA beyond dark, crusty hills.

I shall remember Foulkes more, though, from my first encounter in a gallery, where an eagle crossed a mountain. Maybe his obsession was less obvious then, because it had not become the subject all by itself. But then an obsession can carry one only so far. An early painting spoke of The Sun That Is God's Mouth. By the end god and the sun have spoken, and the earth has died. Maybe god will take up taxidermy.

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Llyn Foulkes ran at Andrea Rosen through December 3, 2011, and at the New Museum through September 1, 2013. Aaron Williams ran at Mulherin + Pollard through July 14, 2013.


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