Pioneering artist Llyn Foulkes wasn't born in Los Angeles, but since moving to the city more than a half-century ago, L.A. has burrowed its way into his intense and challenging paintings. It appears as subject matter in canvases that mourn the stripping and gentrification of L.A.'s neighborhoods; and the city's debris literally inhabits the surface of many of his paintings, which often incorporate an array of found materials. None are straightforward landscapes or portraits; rather, Foulkes condenses his impressions of the L.A. Basin into deliberate, tactile works that offer an abstracted sense of place. After all, the city's issues often are those of the country as a whole, and Foulkes offers his unwavering opinions about the direction of both.
The major retrospective of Foulkes' work now on view at the Hammer Museum is a long time coming. (His last such exhibition was nearly 20 years ago at Orange County's Laguna Art Museum.) That it was organized in Los Angeles reflects the importance of the artist to his hometown and vice versa. Foulkes' particular experiences in the city as a place to live, breathe and make art are part of what give his work its visceral punch and its convincing edge. Seeing his paintings and constructions, you may well glimpse Los Angeles in an altered light.
Foulkes came to L.A. in the late 1950s, first by way of a rural, mountainous town in Washington state, where he was born and raised; and then via the war-ravaged cities of Europe through which he traveled in his two years in the Army.
Thanks to the G.I. Bill, Foulkes landed at Chouinard Art Institute — L.A.'s premier art school, which was located downtown before it merged into CalArts in 1970 — and he excelled in painting and drawing courses, winning several awards.
He married young and lived in Eagle Rock, which like today offered more affordable and spacious living spaces, and a chance for Foulkes to explore the neighborhood's craggy areas. He also would travel up to Chatsworth, in the northwest Valley, spending time among its peculiar natural rock formations.
It wasn't long before both locales showed up in his paintings. Works such as Geography Lesson (1960-61) and Geographical Survey of Eagle Rock (1962) reflect some of Foulkes' earliest forays into representational imagery — his student work had leaned toward abstract expressionism — and they demonstrate the artist's method of applying paint to canvas with soaked rags. The result of this technique, entirely Foulkes' own, is a texture that exists somewhere between crumpled paper, jeans, animal hides and the mottled surfaces of rocky peaks. It transforms a simple mountainside into a lush, evocative, even sinister apparition.
In the exhibition audio guide, Foulkes mentions that the Native American tradition of seeing figures in rock formations resonated with him early on. His large-scale rock paintings from the later 1960s, colored in an array of bright, monochromatic washes, bring this ritual to life: Bulbous protrusions and depressions could well double as noses, mouths, limbs and orifices.
Straddling landscape and portraiture, these works combine Foulkes' specific observations of L.A.'s natural beauty — always in danger of being commercially developed — with surreal fantasies. Their timeworn surfaces also serve as metaphors for an imagined American West, where Levis-clad cowboys still have untapped spaces to explore.
In the artist's subsequent portrait series, which occupied him through the 1970s, he employed a similar technique to apply red paint atop his subjects' faces. In these pieces, the blotchy surfaces allude to blood rather than skin, and the results are similarly arresting.
In 1979, Foulkes moved with his second wife to Topanga Canyon, transplanting his studio to one of Los Angeles' more remote neighborhoods. But instead of becoming more introspective after the move, Foulkes' works expanded both in terms of physical depth and cultural scope, and L.A.'s ties to Hollywood and the corporate sphere took center stage.
A page from the 1934 Mickey Mouse Club Handbook clings to the surface of Made in Hollywood (1983), the first of Foulkes' painting-constructions to move outward from the wall like a stage's apron, as curator Ali Subotnick notes in the exhibition catalog. Foulkes uses a combination of sculptural objects and painted surfaces with trompe l'oeil effects to bring the illusion of deep space onto a relatively flat surface (it measures a little more than 7 inches in depth). The handbook shows how Disney attracts America's youth to its consumer-driven entertainment, and a photograph of Foulkes' children — propped atop one of his distant, painted rocks — embodies the casualties of this social experiment.
Other stage set–type constructions of the 1980s, like O'Pablo (1983), detail Foulkes' struggle to find his place within the L.A. art world and among fellow artists. Specific addresses mingle with reproductions of the artist's work and other personal references, each offering crumbs from which one might piece together his whereabouts, influences and yearnings.
Foulkes currently works in the Brewery, downtown L.A.'s live-in arts complex, where he moved in 1997, and over the last two decades the artist has reflected upon the city's built environment.
Soon after moving to Los Angeles, Foulkes was dismayed to witness the razing of stately Victorian homes on Bunker Hill in order to make way for downtown's future skyscrapers. The Rape of the Angels (1991) — this time a flat canvas, still imbued with a palpable depth of field and carefully collaged objects — is an allegory for this incessant process of urban renewal. In the offices of “LALA LAND CO.,” the artist stands next to a money-hungry city planner, who is seemingly in cahoots with a tiny Mickey Mouse sitting on his shoulder. Foulkes composed the work with a strong network of vertical and horizontal lines, which both echo the skyscrapers visible through the window and confine the painting's subjects. By including himself in the picture — which Foulkes has done repeatedly in recent work — the artist maps his personal history onto the fraught historical landscape of his beloved, but convoluted, city.
Foulkes' retrospective closes with his monumental construction, The Lost Frontier (1997-2005), housed in a separate, carefully lit room. The piece is only 8 inches deep, but it presents a view reminiscent of the Sepulveda Pass that stretches backward miles and miles, toward a seemingly infinite horizon. As the Wild West recedes further into the past, Foulkes revives its spirit through his own expansive, unexplored territory.
You could really lose yourself surveying The Lost Frontier, trying to take in each of its innumerable assembled fragments. In the end, it is Foulkes who says it best in the audio guide describing the picture: “It's all about Los Angeles. We're in a lost frontier. We don't know where in the hell we're going.”
LLYN FOULKES | Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Wstwd. | Through May 19 | hammer.ucla.edu