Llyn Foulkes’s Sprüth Magers exhibition consisted of thirty-seven mixed-medium paintings, the vast majority of them made since the Hammer Museum’s celebrated 2013 retrospective of his work. That survey traveled to the New Museum in New York and the Museum Kurhaus Kleve in Germany and brought broad acclaim to this distinctive Los Angeles figure, who began exhibiting with Ferus Gallery in 1959. The pieces shown at Sprüth Magers generally employ the assemblage approach familiar from his previous work, in which he brings together disparate images and found items to explore themes of American culture.
The first painting visitors encountered was Throwing in the Towel (2016), a surreal self-portrait. Mysterious symbols—a dead animal resembling a hybrid of a wolf and a deer, an LA highway sign, and a wandering astronaut—populate a rocky, desertlike landscape in which Foulkes, depicted life-size, is seen discarding a towel in a garbage can. The throwing in of the towel, one assumes, was also meant figuratively—the piece offering a defeatist opening note for the exhibition, which was titled “Old Man Blues.”
A sense of gloominess indeed pervaded the presentation. It quickly became apparent that the artist’s despair was due in no small part to the country’s recent presidential election. In Untitled “Dinghy” (2016), a black man is shown lying in a boat stamped with the logo TRUMP LIFEBOAT CO. With a United States flag draped in his lap and an empty flagpole clutched in his hand, he looks somewhat worse for wear—thrown overboard, perhaps, given the new political direction of his nation. In To Bernie, From Llyn (2016), the word ANGER is spelled out on a red fabric swatch pasted over a portrait of five military men. Trump himself is portrayed in Night Train (2016), which presents a dark landscape with a sky made from black velvet. A billboard, standing in a field of headstones, bears an image of Trump pointing at a sign for Goldman Sachs, while, nearby, a swastika is emblazoned on a wooden post.
Some of the depicted landscapes appear surprisingly unsullied, idyllic even, their blue skies and dusty hills resembling those that Foulkes has rendered throughout his career, basing them on images appropriated from old postcards and photographs. A quick look at the checklist, however, reveals that these more optimistic-seeming works were made in years prior to the presidential race and the arrival of the current, controversy-mired administration.
As is typical of Foulkes’s work, almost all the faces in the recent pieces have been disfigured. The distorted, red-painted heads in paintings like Esther, Al Fucken “Al”, and Untitled (Small Bloody Head), all 2016, create a sense of unease and recall Francis Bacon’s figuration. In Happy Days (2016), the head of Mickey Mouse is transposed with that of a young child, whereas the heads in Sailor Boy and Go Girl (both 2016) are removed from the figures entirely.
Over the course of his career, Foulkes has used his idiosyncratic visual vocabulary to express a distrust of institutions of any kind and to critique many of the sacred cows of American culture—from Walt Disney to the military to notions of heroism. Yet “Old Man Blues” suggested the artist is daunted by the challenges of the new political epoch. In this era of newspeak and “alternative facts,” one can only hope he will continue subverting the symbols propagated by reigning regimes rather than throwing in the towel.