Tuesday, October 1, 2013

From Happy Rocks to Bloody Heads

The first Llyn Foulkes work I saw was one of the 'blood head' works at Robert Berman Gallery in Santa Monica a few years ago and it left a lasting impression.  As I discovered more of his work, I could see that it is often dark, yet can also be humorous, and he certainly doesn't shy away from potentially contentious issues. This is an artist who takes a keen interest in his surroundings, both geographical and political, and incorporates critical social commentary into his paintings and mixed media works.
Money in the Bank, 1977
             The night of Foulkes' talk as part of the Visiting Artist Lecture Series at UNLV's Marjorie Barrick Museum, it had been raining heavily across the Las Vegas Valley and there were warnings of flash floods. However that didn't deter an enthusiastic audience keen to experience the fabled sharp wit of this celebrated artist who hadn't visited Las Vegas since 1965 when touring with his band. Foulkes didn't disappoint, engaging in friendly heckling with the audio visual operator who wasn't intuiting the image sequencing to his complete satisfaction, and berating an attendee in the front row who made the mistake of answering her unsilenced cellphone during his talk.
             He began by describing his first solo show at the influential FerusGallery in LA in 1961, and he credited the experience with this gallery as setting him on a firm footing for the rest of his career. Andy Warhol also had his first solo show at Ferus Gallery at a later date, and Foulkes believes that he influenced Warhol's cow wallpaper works, after Warhol saw a number of Foulke's cow paintings in his Ferus show.
Llyn Foulkes in front of an image of him playing The Machine
            While he was teaching at UCLA, Foulkes produced the 1969 Happy Rock show during a three-month holiday break. He described selling more paintings than he had ever sold previously and then changed tack altogether “because I realized if I kept on doing it I would lose my soul”. There was only one painting left at the end of the show – a portrait. He kept working on it, and it became the first of a completely different series of works – the ‘blood heads’, inspired by an autopsy he had witnessed.           
            His works often include emotionally charged objects that can invoke intense responses. Double Trouble, 1991, deals with issues of gun laws and abortion and contains an actual foetus. Foulkes recalled that when the purchasers of the work discovered the foetus was real, they wanted to return it but he wouldn’t accept it back, so it has been donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
            The sculpture That Great Arm of Art 1997, is formed from a dead possum that he found under his house, The Last Frontier, 1997-2005, contains a mummified cat and Dali and Me, 2006, contains cow’s teeth. Foulkes said he had been surprised to hear that someone had described Dali and Me as “the most horrific painting they had ever seen.” Salvador Dali was described as being the first artist who influenced Foulkes when he was young, prompting him to steal The Secret Life of Salvador Dali from his local library. 
Llyn Foulkes with audience members after the talk
            Although he has described his ‘flat paintings’ as being his best sellers, he has developed techniques to create the perception of depth in many of his works such as the ‘dimensional painting’ The Lost Frontier which incorporates objects that cast shadows and was worked and reworked over a period of eight years.
            He has also never abandoned his interest in music, constructing The Machine which features drums, percussion and old fashioned car and bicycle horns. He played a video of his rendition of "A Smoggy Day in Old LA", performed on The Machine and said that he is now concentrating on music videos. His closing statement was poignant:
"I'll be 79 in two months' time. I gotta' get the videos out....  I'm just a one-man band."

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