Mickey Mouse, Dead Cats, and One-Man Bands: The Llyn Foulkes Documentary

A new documentary, “Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band,” shines a light on one of the most fascinating L.A. artists of our time

The art of painter Llyn Foulkes is striking, at times morbidly dark but imbued with humor and intelligence. Cultural criticism and a relentless questioning of cultural and political institutions—from the art world to Walt Disney—is at the heart of Foulkes’s work. So is a voluminous aesthetic: massive paintings with details carved out of recycled materials to provide depth, a one-man instrument that looks like an organ made of drums, old timey car horns, a foot controlled bass and cow bells, and the disembodied Mickey Mouse heads, dead cats, and an actual petrified fetus that appear in his work. But iconoclasm comes at a price, which is the subject of a new documentary, Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band, which opens in L.A. on May 16.

Until about two years ago, when the Hammer Museum presented a major Foulkes retrospective, few people outside of the art world knew the artist, whose output is characterized by sardonic wit and fierce individuality. He burst onto the L.A. art scene in the 1960s alongside Ed Ruscha, Ed Moses, and Robert Irwin but unlike many of his contemporaries, he sank into obscurity and never quite fit into the art establishment. Foulkes once told Irwin point-blank that he thought the artist’s paintings were mediocre.

One Man Band, made by Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty, follows Foulkes from 2004 to 2011, presenting an intimate and nuanced portrait of the octogenarian enfant terrible.

Foulkes grew up in Washington state, drawing Disney-like figures and listening to Spike Jones records. He moved to L.A. in 1957 to attend Chouinard Art Insitute (now CalArts) but dropped out only two years later due to increasing demand for his work. As the documentary points out, Foulkes has always been guided by an almost obsessive desire to break new ground and improve on previous works, which has put him at odds with gallery owners and museums (The Awakening, Foulkes’s painful self-portrait in bed with his ex-wife, was begun in 1994 and only finished in 2012 because it had to make it to an exhibition in Germany). 

The documentary is at times painful to watch as Foulkes constantly tears away, rebuilds, destroys, and recreates like the god of his own universe. “I had to do it. It’s for the painting,” Foulkes mutters under his breath as he cuts a painting with a belt saw. “It’s not like I wanted to. That’s for damn sure.”

At the heart of the documentary is the filmmakers’ desire to shine the spotlight on a man who has made a career outside of it. It is clear that Foulkes feels the world has neglected to recognize his work—over the course of the film, he threatens numerous times to quit creating entirely—but at the same time, the fierce individualism beaming from his eyes makes it clear that he resents the popularity contest that the professional artist’s path has become. 

In the end, Foulkes comes off as a man who contains multitudes: visionary, self-obsessed neurotic, contrarian, curmudgeon. Somewhere in that cocktail of lies the key to his talent. In a characteristic scene shot in his studio, Foulkes complains: “I might just quit painting altogether.” Then he takes a drag off his cigarette and returns to tinkering with the piece he’s working on again. “No … I won’t.”