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Art Books: Llyn Foulkes

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At 78 years old, Llyn Foulkes is due a wider audience and encouraging recognition. He is a painter and a musician, but his paintings often take on sculptural qualities and collage, while his interest in music has developed from leading a crowded ensemble into a one-man band extravaganza on his homemade instrument, called the Machine. To celebrate his artistic accomplishments, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles put together a retrospective exhibition and an accompanying catalog.

At first flip through this exhibition catalog, one gets a full sense of Foulkes's output from early figurative drawings, to dark abstracted paintings, then to animals and rocks where his art-making begins to reveal its uniqueness. Ali Subotnick, curator for the Hammer and organizer of Llyn Foulkes exhibition, contributes the first of three essays in the catalog. She outlines Foulkes's biographical details and artistic career, beginning with his early interest in cartoon drawings and Spike Jones and running through his critique of corporate culture with the use of Mickey Mouse in violent and desolate paintings. She details his subject matter and how it aligns with his personal interests. For example, he is fascinated with death—he collects taxidermy animals, while his early works reference the atrocities of World War II he had seen in Germany. His 1970s pictures of bleeding heads began after a friend who worked at a mortuary invited him to view an autopsied corpse. The works are most often of mixed mediums where an arm hangs below a canvas, photographs are collaged in, assemblages are constructed, or elements are built up on the canvas and carved away from it. Color is strikingly bright, while his ideas are often blatantly political.

The second essay, by Jason Weiss, ruminates on Foulkes's obsession with music. I'm reminded of Balzac's Gambara (Full text available here) who is a genius-fool instrument maker/composer who creates a complex musical instrument. Like Gambara, it takes a somewhat complex and original personality to put together a successful creation as unique as Foulkes's Machine. His performance on The Machine (watch the video here) at the Hammer Museum last March is a delightful hour of folksy-rhythmic music on an aesthetically balanced array of horns, xylophone, and drums completed by Foulkes himself throned in the center. Weiss explains the intricacies of the Machine and his music as well as outlining some of the lyrics that express a tone very similar to that of Foulkes's paintings:

I have no name
I have no fame
I did not make it
I'm ashamed.

But as a ghost
you'll hear me boast
that I'm the toast
of Hollywood!

The last essay delves into Foulkes's personality and the reflection of that through his art, paintings and music. Jim Lewis describes how Foulkes is truly an American artist, laboring on his personal vision without the need to please an artistic establishment or fill the status quo. His artistic career has often balanced on the periphery of the art world, not quite an artist that made it to artistic stardom, but certainly an artist with talent to last the long haul.

At the end of her essay, Subotnik asks "so why isn't Foulkes a superstar?" He is certainly shining brightly at this moment, and is receiving accolades. What do you think?

Check out the catalog and visit the exhibition. Llyn Foulkes is currently on view at the New Museum in New York City through September 1, 2013.

Also, take a look at these other contemporary Southern California artists and/or artist-musicians:

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