For at least as long as he’s been making art, Yakima-born Llyn Foulkes has been interested in music. As a boy, he played pantomime concerts along with recordings that reminded him of the wacky cartoon scores of Spike Jones. Though his skills were sparing at first, when he moved to Los Angeles, he expanded his skill set beyond the drums, and to this day performs a one-man band called The Machine, with a set of horns he plays all at once while he sings.
The lyrics betray the thoughts of a wistful septuagenarian. Foulkes wishes cowboys were still around. He despises the smog and the endless pavement of contemporary Los Angeles, and he is forever dismayed by the unthoughtful graffiti he sees scrawled the landscape’s natural beauty, as you can see in his rock paintings from Topanga.
What you will see at the Llyn Foulkes retrospective, which is on view at the New Museum through September 1, is an expansion of that wistfulness, and a look into the mind of an empathic and emotionally demonstrative artist.
The most notable feature of the work in the show is Foulkes’ dedication to idiosyncrasy. Assemblages on display include letters and found bits of cloth that could only be the artist’s own. Portraits do little to hide the imperfect work of the artist’s hand. “He wears his heart on his sleeve,” curator Ali Subotnick said, citing Foulkes’ experience as a parent among the sources of his painting style.
Although, as a young man, Foulkes was in close quarters with Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha, he didn’t socialize much with his fellow artists, needing to look after his children instead.
This meant keeping to himself aesthetically as well. “He needs to shut out the noise,” Subotnick said. “He doesn’t trust the art world. I think it’s part of him needing to be outside, and needing to maintain his integrity and vision.” Whereas other artists of his generation responded to Americana with wonder or admiration, Foulkes’ response was one of dark irony. Mickey Mouse was dealt especially harsh treatment. After reading a letter from the 1934 Mickey Mouse Club Handbook, he concluded that Disney was attempting to brainwash his children. “He takes these matters personally,” Subotnick observes. “It’s right there in the work.”