PRINT Summer 1990


THERE'S AN OLD TRIBAL belief that you can lose your soul. Unable to connect with either the outside world or the inner, you’re out of yourself. Your links to family, nature, and religion are gone. Nothing means anything anymore. There seems little sense in thinking, feeling, or even praying. Loss of soul is akin to loss of self, and without self you are no longer human. You are simply not there. Because you have no will, you don’t even have the desire to die—though I believe you can die from the utter abjection of being no longer part of the same equation with life.

Llyn Foulkes’ Pop, 1985–90, is an extraordinary icon of dispossession. Part painting, part construction, part collage, it is made up of fragments of real clothing, real upholstery, and real imitation wood, all coalescing seamlessly with the painted surfaces of representation. The shallow, tableaulike picture space is strange and ambiguous, a kind of seizure in 3-D. Its mingling of real and illusory elements makes the image appear shockingly proximate, almost too close for comfort—in a constrained, claustrophobic kind of way, it reaches out to you from the wall. Yet paradoxically the real materials also make the picture seem startlingly remote, a dreadful fusion of illusion and solid but artificial, alien surfaces.

Into this peculiar space is inscribed—the family home. But the benevolent, reassuring space of domestic life has been transformed into a precarious balance of malevolent forces held in a seismic web of unsettling details. At its center is the figure of Pop: literally protruding eyeballs staring into televisual space; an eerie juxtaposition of clothing—Superman T, worn lumberjack shirt, and threadbare sweater; a real gun hugged close to the body; a paper cup of Diet Coke held over an album of landscape photos that lies forgotten on his lap. Pop creates a sense of metaphysical unease, even horror. His two children gather around him, smothering him in the comfortable surfaces of familial intimacy, and every other element of the picture space also converges on this implosive center. It, or rather he, is like a fissure in the calm, cosy world of domesticity. The familiar textures of suburban space are transformed into the space of nightmare; into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “dark night of the soul.”

It’s difficult to describe the space of the picture exactly. Foulkes has talked to me about his attempt to produce a “space created by material difference,” and this is an accurate description of the formal push and pull, the sense of both depth and shallowness, created by the combination of flat and three-dimensional elements in the image. But it does not convey the gravitational attraction that draws the viewer into the psychological orbit of the picture and the correspondingly physical repulsion out of that orbit. The psychoanalytic theoretician R. D. Laing, in his Voice of Experience, 1982, describes a woman’s fear about boarding a plane:

She is in São Paolo Airport. Her plane is hours late. She has drunk a fair amount.

Time slows down. And stops. Everything, everyone stops. It is timeless and motionless study. It is all a shell. She is in a shell. She has been in her shell all her life. She has never come out of her shell. The shell cracks. The walls start to crumble. The whole world falls apart. She is out of her shell. She was now a ball of fire in an airport lounge. However, no one noticed.

Laing reveals two sensations of horror: being lost in, smothered by, the frozen appearances of the everyday world, and being dispossessed from that world, invisible in it no matter what you do. Pop’s picturescape oscillates in the same double bind. A “ball of fire,” he has broken into the fragile eggshell of the home, and seems to be both exploding and imploding simultaneously.

Metaphors of implosion and explosion extend like a diagonal bridge across the picture. To the right at the back is an atom-bomb calendar, at front left is a television (we cannot see the screen); between them is Pop, trapped, a lightning-rod-like receiver of past images (the Hiroshima cloud) and ongoing ones extending into the future (the TV broadcast). There is no sense of time here, except maybe the temporal dimension of a disaster in which the transient surfaces of everyday life are petrified in a moment of terror. Like every other element here, the work’s suspended moment is fraught with ambivalence. Does the piece enact a coalescence between different kinds of representation or is everything about to fall apart? Is this a moment of desperate trauma or of black comedy, of deliberate exaggeration and distortion? Or is the condition described not a passing moment but a fearful yet ludicrous continuum? Pop seems caught in a stasis between breaking out and breaking down, with no guarantee that he will ever achieve either action. In fact, since this is an unmoving work of art (despite its several internal sources of light), we are assured of the opposite: the scene is permanent.

The diagonal force field between the television and the atom-bomb photograph makes a cross or X with another powerful diagonal, the current between son and daughter. Pop sits at the X’s center. In neat haircut, trendy, lurid-colored shorts, and the obligatory Walkman, the son, at front right, is the embodiment of contemporaneity. Simultaneously reading from the Creed of the Mickey Mouse Club (“I will be a square shooter in my home, in school, on the playground. I will be a good American”) and listening to his tape, the boy is separate and self-contained. Enclosed by his own inputs of sound and sight, he is desensitized to any human presence. (Actually, though his face is turned away from us, we can see his cheek and temple, and he seems to be eyeless.) He vividly symbolizes the role culture has imposed on men: getting the job done while remaining at an emotional distance from others. The daughter, on the other hand, with her gesture of reassurance and concerned look toward her father, is almost a sinister caricature of the archetypal mother figure. Standing at back left in an old-fashioned black granny-dress, her head outlined against a dark picture—the HOLLYWOOD sign—on the wall, she seems to belong to the dark, nocturnal world outside, which we glimpse only as a slit of deep blackness in the nearly closed window. Pop shares with her the cross-cut shadows of the area between two light sources, the TV and the lamp.

Foulkes has a remarkable ability to create a physically ambivalent space, and to “wrong-foot” the viewer by closing down the difference between fantasy and nightmare. These qualities are mirrored by the music that he uses as the soundtrack for a viewing of the work. Two songs, “America the Beautiful” and “Mickey Rat,” play on a continuous tape loop. Each is accompanied by Foulkes playing his “machine,” a homemade instrument consisting of drum set, string bass, numerous rubber car horns of differing sizes and timbres, and an array of wind instruments hung strategically for easy access. The machine creates its own unique one-man-band sound. “Mickey Rat,” written by Foulkes and sung by him and his two children (daughter and son), is a Disney dream turned bad:

Once upon a time there was a mouse
He lived in every house
People did not set traps for him
Because it was a sin.
His job was to keep everyone clean
To run people through his washing machine
He had a white face he kept the right pace
With his patriotic jive
Helter skelter run for shelter
That’s the way the cradle falls
Skinny Minnie with Albert Finney
Why he’s my favorite star.
Some people think he’s just a cartoon
The one they should have sent to the moon
But he’s a real louse, not even a real mouse
His name is Mickey Rat.

You may fail to recognize the sting in the tail of this merry song unless you listen to the words long enough to let them penetrate, but “America the Beautiful” is more aggressively soured in confrontation with Foulkes’ icon of Pop. Between the riffs of mythic America’s lost ancestral landscape and the landscape of contemporary reality, with its schizophrenic misery and dubious joys, there is a dimensional shift. In these coordinates of space and time, Pop can find no home.

Many languages make a connection between “home” and “soul,” seeming to reflect a profound exchange between the psychic and the external centers of our lives. Just as homelessness can symbolize a loss of the soul, so losing the soul can signify homelessness, even as you sit in your chair surrounded by family and TV. Severance from one can mean severance from the other. This is the terror of Pop. And though Foulkes’ icon of dispossession is disturbing, even intimidating, it is so for all the right reasons. The world we inhabit is in distress. The writer James Hillman might call it a world that abuses the soul. Foulkes’ Pop figure comes as close to a picturing of this abuse as anything I’ve seen. In these terms, Pop is also an icon of hope: as Hillman writes in his essay collection A Blue Fire, “Through depression we enter depths and in depths find soul.” And “the call of soul convinces; it is a seduction into psychological faith, a faith in images and the thought of the heart, into an animation of the world.”

Rosetta Brooks is a writer who lives in New York. She is the editor of ZG magazine.