“Painting is my torment, and music is my joy,” Llyn Foulkes remarks, as he begins his lurching tune, “A Ghost in Hollywood,” on video at Kent Gallery. He sits at his “machine,” an out-sized drum kit piled with rubber horns, holding three mallets in his hand and working the bass pedal in his socks. The song is about a malevolent spirit with red eyes who haunts the poor souls that “displease him.” Foulkes grins and arches his eyebrows with macabre wit, lifting his gravelly voice into a howl: “And at night, when you’re alone…” He trails off down the scale, leaving the dark dreams of Hollywood’s past up to the listener’s imagination.
Foulkes began exhibiting with Los Angeles’ Ferus Gallery in 1959; his first solo show was held there two years later. He was part of the West Coast Pop scene, but his recent work displays tremendous ambivalence toward that world and how taking up visual art affected his life. His pictures begin in the last, mournful ellipsis of his song. They represent the backstage – or back alley – of entertainment, where the mad twinkle in the eye of the jester disappears into sweat and tears of the artist.
In this group of mixed-media works, Foulkes constructs pictorial space as a highly constricted, even tortured domain. He shears depth from behind portraits and landscapes, trapping his subjects against flat black, gray, or the blue-green of school photos. Some images are framed with dirty, flecked white margins, and most are mounted with surprising care on pieces of distressed scrap wood. They suggest the reverse side of something more pristine, as though the object forms a membrane between the artist’s world and everyone else’s.
Foulkes develops this conceit in the faces of some of his portraits, although the realm beyond the canvas turns out to pose a weirder threat than the grubby, reduced dimensions of painting. In Mr. President (2006), a 1930s Mickey Mouse face pokes through where Washington’s eyes and nose should be; ditto in Portrait of Walt Disney (2004-2005), except that the man’s face is charred and bloodied by the corporate cartoon. Some elements, such as the trompe l’oeil moonscape of Route 77 and Foulkes’ boxing gloves in I Got a Job to Do (both 2003), push out into the gallery space, as though trying and failing to become something more than mere appearance.
Deliverance, a large work made over the past three years, stages the murder of the all too ubiquitous Mickey as a sort of showdown between artist and material. Foulkes and his gun appear in fragile white outline, while his shirt and jeans are actual fabric. The room is literally carpeted, and the round bullet hole in the mouse’s trunk hisses white cotton padding. One of his strangest motifs peers through the window, a bas-relief voyeur with false eyes and waxy skin. Crouching watchfully at the sill before a painted California shore, he is an unremitting, skin-crawling figure of doubt, piercing through the productive fiction of the pictorial surface to confront those of us who believe we are real. In order to dispatch Mickey and his attendant spirits, Foulkes seems to be barricading himself against paint, a contradictory though intriguing mission that will surely spur him into new, if frightening, territory.