Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 23, 2014 6:43 pm 
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Tamar Halpern, Chris Quilty: Lynn Foulkes One Man Band (2013)

Who’s On Third?, 1971-73, 48 x 39 in, John Jones collection

Lynn Foulkes: Who is he?

Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty's documentary Lynn Foulkes One Man Band will be an eye-opener for many. Who is Llyn Foulkes? He is a stubbornly independent Los Angeles artist and musician who despite great success in the Sixties and early Seventies, lived for decades in relative obscurity. This changed toward the end of the seven-year period covered by this film, when he got major shows and reentered the limelight, in his seventies, finally achieving putative "international stature" after over fifty years of making art.

Foulkes's striking, varied work in its various forms combines surrealism, dada, and pop, assemblage and painting. On first glimpsing the artist's work one may think of Magritte, or Dali, or Francis Bacon, with a nod to Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke and West Coast assemblage artists like Ed Kienholz. It's intentionally disturbing and often stands a little outside the time and place of its making. Back in the day, late Fifties, early Sixties (he was born in Yakima, Washington 1934), Foulkes was the cool young L.A. outsider. He had lean, rakish good looks and was deliberately mysterious in manner. He won a big painting prize and dropped out of the Chouinard Art Institute (since moved and renamed CalArts), then joined the then cutting edge L.A. venue, the Ferus Gallery, and was given a solo show there in 1961.

But Foulkes, as he tells it, refused to repeat himself (a lifelong habit), and also was insulting about the Ferus Gallery space-and-light artist Robert Irwin, whom he found superficial, and was thrown out of the gallery. "They wanted me to be consistent/To throw away my heart/They wanted me to be non-resistent/To follow their history of art," goes the refrain in a set of rhymes Foulkes recites before the opening titles of this film. He quickly was taken in by the Rolf Nelson Gallery, right across the street from Ferus, and had solo shows in 1962 at Pasadena Art Museum and 1964 at the Oakland Museum. In 1967 he won the painting prize at the Paris Biennale, followed by a big European show. "They made me the belle of the ball,/I could do no wrong at all/I won the Paris Biannale/I thought that I would never fall," he rhymes. Yet in spite of all this, the outsider role stuck. He refused to be consistent, to throw away his heart.

Halpern and Quilty's documentary is inadequate as a review of Llyn Foulkes's biography or the history of his work, its highlights and periods, its merits and weak points and relation to the work of other artists, though the film rapidly flips through a lot of his paintings at several points. Exact chronology is also neglected with inter-titles just announcing "one year later," "two years later," etc. so one quickly loses track. For details about these things you must go elsewhere and read reviews of his retrospectives, articles about his work, the Wikipedia entry, his resume, or other material online. But Llyn Foulkes One Man Band delivers something invaluable these other sources can't provide: periodic live access to the man during a key seven-year period, age 70-77, ending just a year or so ago; many ruminations by Foulkes; performances on the constantly added-to maniacal one-man-band device he calls "The Machine" (an escape from but also an adjunct to his art); and above all live documentation and chronicling of Foulkes' work on two major paintings, The Lost Frontier and The Awakening.

Another noted work spanning years that's shown here is Foulkes' Pop. It's a terrifying, claustrophobic little family tableau of a father with two children, the father staring horrified or hypnotized at a TV screen while his daughter seemingly comforts him; and his son, plugged in elsewhere via headphones, stands facing "Pop" reading to him the Mickey Mouse Club pledge. Foulkes has long focused on business and right-wing control over American life, or for that matter over all human identity, with the Seventies portrait series like Who's on Third? showing corporate logos or other symbols of collective domination (such as a crucifixion) masking ruined, bloody faces. In particular he has long used Mickey Mouse to symbolize corporate enslavement of young people: his "pop" art is biting and angry, no cheery celebration of the bright, trivial trappings of commercialized culture. Sometimes his political agenda seems crude, and his methods, by his own admission, sometimes crude also, leading to an effect not unlike some "outsider" art. The rock paintings and the bloody-head portrait series are slicker, perhaps subtler, though throughout Foulkes' command of disparate materials and craftsmanship are notable. His youthful mastery of cartoon drawing and caricature (he shows some examples to the camera) reveals his skill in another field, also his satirical and sometimes childlike bent.

The Lost Frontier is more mysterious, perhaps welcomely so, but may partly depict the end of nature. These are, for Foulkes, large as well as important works, though he cut them down in size by progressively sawing off outer borders, finding that made them feel larger, as interior decorators use bigger furniture in small rooms to make them feel more grand; and he comments that one quite small painting has been as much trouble as a big one. Speaking of scale, he also comments ironically that dealers want big paintings to sell them for more money, and admits he needs to sell a big painting himself because he needs to make money. Besides the issue of scale, there is that of time and effort: Foulkes also notes that works by Andy Warhol that took half an hour to do, or were executed by assistants, sell for a hundred times what his work goes for. All the basic ironies of art and commerce, Foulkes deals with at one time or another in the course of his fierce ramblings. And these are also nearly always salted with his omnipresent sense of humor, because it's not just in his music inspired early on by the comic band leader Spoke Jones but in his talk that Foulkes is a funny man whose anger is always leavened by laughter.

Watching the live documentation of Foulkes' art-making, I am reminded, not for the first time, of the invaluable Fifties series of articles in Art News, "So-and-So " (Pollack, De Kooning, Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Rico Lebrun, et al.) "Paints a Picture," each time including before, during, and after process-snapshots along with commentary that provided invaluable insight into how the artist worked. Halpern and Quilty's film can be considered an extended, time-lapse, moving-picture version of an Art News "Paints a Picture" article, about Llyn Foulkes, complete with personal and biographical notes. Comments by friends, family, ex-wives, gallery and museum people, and collectors (including the late Dennis Hopper) are also judiciously interjected now and then, but with notable restraint. The emphasis is always on Foulkes himself, articulate, stoical, angry, and unguarded. Whatever flaws this film may have, it deserves credit and admiration for never getting in the way of the man, and for sticking to him as doggedly as he sticks to his major works.

The "Paints a Picture" action is angst-ridden, self-destructive, but essential, and we learn why it is, or why Foulkes is convinced that it is anyway. Foulkes knows that the way he takes a small power saw or awl and favorite hammer, baraka-blessed through long use, to cut out segments of his collage-paintings, which have been known to include glass eyes, teeth, and dead cats; the way he suddenly and arbitrarily moves objects and figures around, even to the last minute, admitting that his works are never finished-- he knows his methods are painful and agonizing. This applies particularly to The Lost Frontier and The Awakening, the latter, of himself and his ex-wife Kati Breckenridge in bed, having he says destroyed his marriage, though perhaps it was more truly a sign of its dissolution. But Foulkes is not alone in firmly believing that making art must be a struggle, that when it comes easy, it doesn't feel right. (According to Scott Foundas' Variety review of of the Halpern-Quilty documentary, The Awanening has been bought since completion of the film by "none other than Brad Pitt.")

As Art News's "Paints a Picture" series established especially for abstract expressionism, and as one can see in the photo-documentation of 22 stages in the making of Matisse's1935 Large Reclining Nude AKA Pink Nude in Baltimore's Cone Collection, modern paintings particularly have tended to go through radical changes in the process of being made, partly because the artist is transforming and inventing nature rather than copying it. (Not that medieval and renaissance painters didn't make radical changes too though.) Foulkes makes clear from his statements during the film that for him, the angst-ridden create-destroy-create process is essential, and is what a real artist must go through. Gallery hacks who simply reproduce the same paintings over and over so they're easy to sell don't do any soul-searching or make radical changes: the relative efficiency of their working methods is a sign of their inauthenticity and fakery. And despite what people say about how Foulkes could have finished his pictures much earlier and let them go, and despite the fact that the struggle seems needless at times, the final versions are better than the earlier stages. The film shows that, and thus is both a painful documentation of the method and a vindication of it.

Foulkes' The Lost Frontier has been compared to Jay De Feo's The Rose, also a painting long in the making that was thickly-layered, sculptural, many-staged, and three-dimensional. The Rose made De Feo famous, but also stalled her career and she often said wrecked it. Though five years younger than Jay (who also started with the Ferus Gallery) Foulkes has some of that proud, stubborn self-destructiveness that characterized various American artists of that generation. Current artists talk glibly of their "process" and seem to spend as much time on social media, the Internet, academic degrees and honed resumes as on doing the actual work, if there even is any, since conceptual artists need have only documentation and a good rap. But artists like Foulkes are craftsmen, and one gets a good look at the brushes, table saws, hand saws, tools, and carpentry that go into the making of his works.

The "process" essential to Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is the serendipitous trajectory that made it worth following him for these seven years: the capturing of a particularly dramatic down-then-up segment of the sine curve of his life. First he has a big show in New York in 2005 (at the Kent Gallery) that is a disaster -- in his view hardly anyone showed up. For that he had finished The Lost Frontier -- or given up working on it, at least: the last near-sleepless days of work on it are documented in the film. He is depressed for three months after the Kent Gallery show. He goes back to his endless (actually 18-year) project "bedroom picture," showing himself and his wife in bed, which he finally entitled The Awakening. He lets it go for the Hammer Museum group show, Nine Lives: Visionary Artists from LA in 2009. The show is a success and he feels "like such a star" at its opening. Then in the next three years comes a sequence of big solo shows for Foulkes starting at the Hammer Museum.* These lead to his feeling he is at last "getting his due," and make him "happy," almost for the first time ever, in his late seventies. Looking back, while ex-wives and attractive grown children are on hand to support the man and rally round, he also acknowledges that he failed (several times over) as a husband and father because an artist is so self-centered. "I used to call it narcissism," he says. Like them as people or not, narcissists are interesting to watch. They have a lot to say. Besides that, whatever one concludes about Foulkes' work, his stubbornness, passion and obsessive-compulsive focus make him a true exemplar of the dedicated, determinedly authentic artist.

That Halpern and Quilty get all this into their film with no sense of crowding -- as complete a portrait of a living artist and his way of working as you're likely to find -- all in the course of just under an hour and a half is no mean feat, indeed admirable. Combine that with their serendipitous timing and you have an art documentary that's exceptionally interesting.

*The Llyn Foulkes retrospective (140 works) ran at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through May 19, 2013 and moved on to the New Museum in New York and the Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Germany Dec. 8, 2013-Feb. 2, 2014. He was also featured at the Venice Biennale in 2011 and Documenta 13 in 2012. For a description of the Hammer retrospective see These were the events that restored the artist's good mood (if he'd ever had one) and led to late-career recognition.

Portrait of Leo Gorcey, 1969, 107 3/4
x 64 3/4 in.; Whitney Museum, NYC.

These big, beautiful early-period tinted-monochrome rock paintings were prize-winners and hot sellers. Foulkes looks at another, similar, one of these in the film hanging at a museum show and comments that they're nice enough, but: "I don't know; I just didn't want to do that for the rest of my life." He's never wanted to go on doing any one kind of image, for that matter.

Pop, 1985-90, 84 x 123 x 4 in; bought by Museum of Contemporary Art, L.A.

These later works are partly moulded and three-dimensional. They're even more "mixed-media" than earlier Llyn Foulkes works, including moulded "rock," cloth, and even such repulsive objects as dead animal carcasses; also real electric lights, adding to their inner glow.

The Lost Frontier, 1997-2005, 87 × 96 × 8 in.; bought by the Hammer
Museum, L.A., 2011.

The film documents the last agonizing several days of work on this painting, whose three-dimensional elements make it look dramatically like an old stereopticon image or what's wistfully called a "3D" movie. (Foulkes has said elsewhere that he once owned and used a stereopticon camera.)

The Awakening, 1994-2012, 40 ¼ x 44 x 7 in.; private collection.

Foulkes went back and worked on this painting further after it was exhibited in the Nine Lives show, when two people wanted to buy it and he turned down $75,000 for it. "I never did that before," he said. He worked on it till it went to show at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012.

Foulkes plays The Machine. "Painting is my torment, and music is my joy."

Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, 88 mins., debuted 30 June 2013 in competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It opens in New York at Film Forum 7-13 May 2014, showing there in tandem with Chris Teerink's Sol Lewitt, 72 mins., and opens in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall, Laemmle's Noho and Laemmle's Pasadena May 16-22. It previewed in April at Tucson and Beacon NY. For further release information see the film website.

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