Santa Barbara

Llyn Foulkes

Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum

The otherwise excellent essay in the catalogue accompanying Llyn Foulkes’ exhibition attempts to place his searing portraits of cultural and political antiheroes under the irregular umbrella of neo-Expressionism. This 51-year-old California veteran needs no such well-meaning camouflage. Foulkes first appeared as a young painter exhibiting at the Ferus Gallery in the late ’50s and early ’60s, his need to go for the jugular setting him apart from the glossy finish-fetish spirit of that time. Foulkes has long been a force to be reckoned with, a widely respected figure uncompromised by a decoration-loving marketplace. He is an irascible, sometimes almost invisible presence in this carefully groomed, laid back, but intensely competitive community.

This roomful of recent collage-paintings made it apparent that Foulkes’ finely detailed mutilated heads aren’t neo anything. He is absolutely serious when he offers up these greed-deranged industrialists, art czars, and minor militarists, a vision of moral bankruptcy feeding off the flesh of its victims and going rotten in the process. This work is expressionistic in content and emotional impact without needing to involve itself in heavy pigment, grand scale, or mythologizing as evidence of its earnestness.

The most arresting paintings in this show were the very small ones, in which world-worn, fragmented photographs merge imperceptibly with carefully delineated figures, a type of unreal realism reminiscent of the startling clarity of northern Renaissance painting. A stiffly rugged fellow in uniform reaches out across a table full of paperwork in Military Business, 1985, his expression contained and yet full of tension. Bloody smears of pigment mar the smiling youthful face of Manuel, 1985, perhaps the most compelling of the small works in this show.

It is tempting to compare Foulkes’ cycle of terrifying faces and hollow role players to the potent imagery of Francis Bacon, but Foulkes concerns himself with present dangers and real-life horrors, not having the luxury to contemplate the more abstract realms of the existentialist. It is exhilarating to experience an art this direct and unmannered, this eager to grab its audience by the collar and shout into its ear. Whether these paintings will find their way into museum collections, grace the living room of a collector, or garner critical praise seems wonderfully irrelevant. (One wonders whether or not Eugene Delacroix had any of those things in mind when he painted La Liberté Guidant le Peuple [Liberty leading the people, 1830].)

A practiced, persuasive maker of images, Foulkes is no naïf, either esthetically or politically The society he presents is one betrayed, not one inherently doomed. The artist is present as the troubled and critical witness of this betrayal, fulfilling the role of presenter, stage manager, and concerned citizen. It would be wrong to suppose that Foulkes wishes violence to happen to these figures, even though he thrusts them at us in a mutilated and decaying condition. Indeed, they have done it to themselves, and he elicits our concern and compassion. One hears a great deal about risk-taking and authenticity in contemporary art, to measure the achievement of Foulkes we may have to create a new yardstick.

Susan C. Larsen