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Painter Llyn Foulkes Creates On The Fringes Of The Art World


For more than 50 years, a Los Angeles artist named Llyn Foulkes has operated on the fringes of the art establishment. In an era of celebrity worship, he remains a kind of under-the-radar iconoclast, an outsider inside the art world. He's not unknown - his work is in permanent collections of several major museums - it's just that he doesn't seem to put much stock in fame. Now, a new retrospective at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles is threatening to raise his profile a bit more. Carolina Miranda paid Foulkes a visit at his home and has this look at an unusual man.

CAROLINA MIRANDA, BYLINE: I am standing before a wall in Llyn Foulkes' living room; a wall that is covered top-to-bottom in an infinite array of curiosities. There's a large stuffed eagle, a page from the Mickey Mouse Club manual. And lots of skulls.

LLYN FOULKES: I got the rhinoceros skull because I had gone to Bryant's taxidermy in Burbank. He used to do all the stuff for the studios then.

MIRANDA: For most of his 78 years, Foulkes has been amassing all kinds of oddities: a whale bone dangling from the ceiling and a toothbrush in the shape of a gun.

FOULKES: A toy gun for a little kid to learn to brush his teeth with. Come on - only in America.

MIRANDA: Many of these objects eventually make their way into his art. One of his tableaus has a sweater he wore in the Army. Another contains a piece of towel his dog used to sleep on.

FOULKES: Well, all these things mean something to me and it makes me more a part of what I'm doing.

MIRANDA: Foulkes' work is intensely personal. The devastation he saw as a young Army private in Germany in the 1950s, drove the explosive black brushstrokes of his early paintings.

FOULKES: I never got that out of my mind, ever. I still haven't. That anybody could do anything like that to people.

MIRANDA: Foulkes took to painting as a way of wrestling with his anguish - be it over his disintegrating marriage or the overdevelopment of Los Angeles, where he's lived since the mid-1950s. Ali Subotnick, a curator at L.A.'s Hammer Museum, recalls visiting Foulkes' studio for the very first time.

ALI SUBOTNICK: I was just blown away by his rawness and how honest the work was and so forthright and just unfiltered and so unpretentious compared to all the elitism of the art world and everyone trying to be so hip and cool and ironic. And it was just exactly the opposite.

MIRANDA: Foulkes' singular vision has earned him a place in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in L.A. He's also won first prize at the Paris Biennale. Even so, he's remained a marginal figure.

SUBOTNICK: He also doesn't really play by art world rules. He doesn't network. He isn't that interested in socializing or kissing up to collectors.

MIRANDA: He also has a habit of saying exactly what's on his mind.

FOULKES: I don't trust art. I've never trusted art. You know? No, they're off to the next thing. Well, what's the next thing going to be, you know?

MIRANDA: In the '60s, when art was all about Andy Warhol-style pop, Foulkes was producing acid-colored landscapes. In the '70s, when everyone turned to installation, he painted gruesomely funny bloody heads that channeled his disdain for authority. In the '80s, he began using found objects to create three-dimensional dioramas.

SUBOTNICK: And "The Lost Frontier" is this bleak landscape and it sort of reflects his love-hate relationship with L.A.

MIRANDA: Hammer curator Ali Subotnick is describing one of the artist's masterworks: Foulkes depicted himself looking out over garbage-covered California hillsides. "The Lost Frontier" is eight feet wide and only eight inches deep.

SUBOTNICK: But it feels like it goes on forever. And I've talked to so many people that say it makes them dizzy just standing in front of it.

MIRANDA: Llyn Foulkes started out wanting to be a cartoonist and a musician. He's been a drummer ever since he was a kid in Yakima, Washington, entertaining his working-class family with elaborate shows. In the 1970s, he built a one-man-band he calls The Machine.

FOULKES: I have probably about 36 bulbed horns and maybe the same amount of animal bells.


MIRANDA: It is a massive instrument, like the cab of a bright red steam engine, studded with noise makers.

FOULKES: A xylophone. I have organ pipes that are hooked up that I play with my feet.


MIRANDA: Foulkes sits in the middle of this mass. And when he gets it going, it's like he's riding a galloping horse.


FOULKES: It's just all different sounds. It depends on what I'm playing.


MIRANDA: Foulkes' goofy, honking performances didn't exactly endear him to the chilly art world. They did, however, get him a spot on "The Tonight Show" in 1974.


MIRANDA: These days, music has taken on a bigger role in Foulkes' life. Macular degeneration has set in in one eye.

FOULKES: I could do this probably with my eyes closed at this point.

MIRANDA: Not that he's planning on giving up art. Painting is where he gets out his angst. The music is where he finds joy.

FOULKES: You know, it gets me back into the performance sort of thing like I did when I was a kid. I can make people happy, I can people laugh. Or, you know, I like nothing better than to have people listen to me and watch me play.

MIRANDA: For NPR News, I'm Carolina Miranda in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carolina Miranda