Since the 1950s, Foulkes has been creating images that deal with the American Dream: consumerism, the environment, racism, war, politics, and the Hollywoodization of a culture in slow-but-steady moral decline. A 1980s series of tableau-format, mixed-media assemblages included titles like "Made in Hollywood" and "The Last Outpost." The latter depicts the Lone Ranger, gun drawn, lying on the floor -- presumably dead, like all our childhood heroes. Behind him, rustic barn-like doors open upon a barren plateau populated by a single dark figure in the distance, a telephone pole, a dusty road. Another figure in a tea-colored Victorian lace dress stands mid-ground with a shrunken Mickey Mouse head where we ought to see Miss Kitty or the soap commercial girl. The format recalls Marcel Duchamp; the use of comics is pure Pop.
In "The Lost Frontier," the Victorian dress/Mickey head figure reappears, this time sporting a gun. yet receded into the middle ground of this large-scale assemblage that points to disillusionment with American culture while at the same time creating an illusion of a movie set with bas relief. The landscape is two-toned now: a dull brown city occupies the background (suggesting the inversion layers of Los Angeles smog) while charred-looking rock formations mushroom out of the foreground. A man stares into a television screen, behind which is a scarred tree trunk, a supine animal carcass and other detritus. An Indian sits cross-legged, a broken basket/bowl in his lap, while a rusty sign anchors the lower left foreground.
As he explains in a YouTube interview, Foulkes started the painting in 1997 and kept adding to it with wood chips, small toys and extremely thick layers of paint until finishing it in 2005. He describes "The Lost Frontier" as depicting Los Angeles, yet the work transcends Southern California to comment on westward expansion, the genocidal treatment of Native Americans, the desecration of the environment, urban sprawl, and mainstream culture's preoccupation with such passive mind-pabulum as television and the aforementioned Mickey Mouse.
The erstwhile rodent frequents Foulkes' work, which circles hawk-like throughout his five-decade career, always hunting the same prey: dismantling any illusions we might yet have about American culture. In "Washingtonland," Foulkes layers a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Mickey (sans ears) over a dollar-bill portrait of George Washington.
"I just don't want to see it be a Mickey Mouse world," says Foulkes on YouTube. He doesn't want civilization to decline, of course. But mostly, he wants us to avoid being apathetic.
It's interesting to note that Disney, which Foulkes takes a swipe at in a 2004 painting, took over Foulkes' alma mater, the Chouinard Institute, transforming it in the 1960s into Cal Arts. By then, Foulkes was entrenched in the Los Angeles art scene alongside Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and Robert Irwin, exhibiting at Ferrus Galleries several years before Andy Warhol started rolling out his soup cans. In 1967, Foulkes represented the United States in the Bienal Internacional in Sao Paulo and earned first prize in that year's Paris Biennale. While not quite a household name, he's collected by such prestigious locations as the MOMA, the Chicago Art Institute and the Centre Pompidou.
You might say Foulkes marches to the tune of his own drum. Like many artists who experiment in multiple art forms -- a friend and fellow exhibitor is actor Robert Dean Stockwell -- Foulkes maintains a longtime interest in music. Starting out with a band called City Lights in the '70s, Foulkes eventually formed the Rubber Band. He still performs and has released a CD compilation of song using a self-built contraption which he calls the Machine -- an amalgam of bass, drums, horns, bells and toys that sounds a little like a Balinese gamelan in the middle of a rush-hour traffic jam.
While his presentation as part of the Visiting Artist Lecture Series is likely to focus on his visual rather than his performing arts career, Llyn Foulkes is the kind of personality who enjoys shocking viewers -- and listeners -- with the unexpected.
Llyn Foulkes will speak at SFCC's SUB on Tuesday, May 6, at 11:30 am and at the MAC in Browne's Addition at 7 pm; he'll also appear on Wednesday, May 7, at noon at the EWU Art Auditorium. Free. Call 359-2493.