05/22/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Llyn Foulkes: A Modern Master

Courtesy Llyn Foulkes

Anyone with the guts to stand up to Mickey Mouse and call him out has my respect. The Mouse, along with his creator, Walt Disney, has done more than anyone to remove the heart, spine and guts from American culture. With his bowdlerization of perfectly good fairy tales and fables, myths and legends, Disney deprived the children of America of important lessons in what it means to be a human being, substituting superficial moralizing for profound morality, cuteness for true beauty and contingency for truth. Disguising the dark side of sexuality and violence with a veneer of winsome brightness, he made it possible to ignore the bothersome complexity of life in favor of a happy tune and the illusion that everything is breezy.

I'm glad to have showed up at least for the last day of the Llyn Foulkes retrospective exhibition at the Hammer Museum on Saturday, and wished I had gone sooner -- so that I'd have the opportunity for a return visit. Foulkes is one of the few artists in the past fifty years to have taken serious responsibility for addressing troubling truths about humanity, in particular American humanity and to have devoted his work to the uncompromising exposure of the dark side of its values: the greed and materialism, the violence and repressed sexuality, the shoddy "dream" based on money, acquisitiveness and ruthless self-advancement at the expense of one's fellow citizens.


Lucky Adam (1985) Mixed media. 50 x 35 x 4 in.

That he hated Disney-ism with a passion is evident in the recurring image of Mickey in his work, a constant, lurking presence who surveys the ruins of a society in decay.


Deliverance (2007) - Mixed Mediums 72 X 84 in.

If there's anger in Foulkes's visual work, his satire takes an irreverently exuberant turn in his music. We were fortunate to catch him on Saturday in rehearsal for a scheduled show-closing performance the following day, setting up his justly famous one-man band and testing the sound. The Machine...

llyn foulkes

Llyn Foulkes Performing on the Machine at the Church of Art, 2008 he calls it, is a fantastic assemblage of xylophones, percussion instruments and cowbells, all fronted by a cluster of ancient car horns that blare out tunefully when squeezed. At the center of this display sits the artist with a spray of drumsticks and strikers sprouting from each hand, a sprightly master of his instruments and a vocalist of surprising authority and range. His songs are, well, exuberantly irreverent, a mix of music hall comedy and rock, and he belts them out with a glint in his eye and a sometimes benevolent, sometimes mocking grin.

It's good to see this modern master get his due. The price he has paid for an uncompromising vision is the kind of marginalization to which the art world too often subjects those who ignore the dictates of its trends and -isms. His contribution is an important one -- and one that reminds us that artists, at their best, are those who hold human and aesthetic values up for scrutiny, and not those who toady to the market or the current fashion. To paraphrase the saying, if we didn't have a Llyn Foulkes, we'd sure need to invent him.