The labels that people have attached to Llyn Foulkes have been completely inadequate to his art, as labels always are to great artists. He has often been identified as an L.A. Pop artist because he launched his career in the early 1960s as part of the Ferus Gallery stable, and because pop culture icons such as Mickey Mouse, Superman and the Lone Ranger frequently turn up in his work. In fact, after his mid-1960s photo-based paintings of rocky outcroppings, his work has had little to do with Pop art. The relief paintings he has devoted himself to making for the last 25 years are meticulously constructed over excruciatingly long periods of time (his massive The Lost Frontier is dated “1995-2005”) with techniques that have more to do with the Middle Ages than with late 20th century America.
Also at odds with the spirit of Pop is Foulkes’s ornery defiance of the art market. For all the social critique encoded (or read) into Pop art, artists such as Warhol and Lichtenstein were first and last commercially savvy producers, more accommodating to marketing than any generation since the birth of modern art. For his part, Foulkes soon stopped making the only kind of work that ever brought him easy market success (the rock paintings) for increasingly difficult work, starting with paintings of grotesque, battered heads.
Lastly, if Pop is about the Now, Foulkes is a partisan of the Then. Although innovative and daring as an artist, he is more likely to celebrate the past, and to lament the loss of the old ways of doing things. This is especially evident in his elegies for lost Los Angeles, which he has decried in paintings such as The Rape of the Angels (1991) and songs (“Old L.A.”). (As a musician, Foulkes favors old-timey, vaudevillian styles for his one-man-band performances; he’s as distinctive a musician as he is a visual artist.)
Lately there’s been a wave of artworld nostalgia for L.A. in the 1960s, from the posthumous Dennis Hopper show at LA MOCA to a trio of New York gallery shows celebrating the impact of surfing subculture on visual art. Although Foulkes was very much part of the ’60s L.A. scene, it’s hard to see his work being successfully appropriated for such projects: he is at once too apocalyptic (his presence was key in “Helter Skelter,” the 1992 show of dark L.A. art) and too invested in a deeply pessimistic view of history; his protagonists are usually victims of forces they are incapable of understanding. One line in “Old L.A.” encapsulates the sense of befuddlement and loss that pervades so many of his paintings: “I guess I’ll never know why the good times had to go.”