J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Art at Film Forum: Llyn Foulkes One Man Band

Stylistically, Llyn Foulkes and Sol Lewitt might be quite dissimilar, but they both present challenges to exhibit. While Lewitt’s installations frequently come with highly detailed, labor-intensive instructions, Foulkes’ collage-paintings often have to be ripped out of the artist’s obsessive-compulsive hands. Viewers will watch Foulkes mount a comeback bid (or two) for the acclaim that has largely eluded him, while demonstrating much of the eccentricity that had held him back in Tamar Halpern & Chris Quilty’s Llyn Foulkes One Man Band (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

As a young artist, Foulkes looked be well on his way, even though he never fit easily into an accepted movement or category. Unfortunately, a few blunt-spoken words got him thrown out of the prestigious Ferus Gallery, dramatically setting back his career. Indeed, Foulkes has often been his own worst enemy, as Halpern & Quilty thoroughly document. Preparing for two potentially game changing exhibitions, Foulkes commits to completing his seven-years-in-the-making painting-construct somewhat aptly titled The Lost Frontier. Later, he also agrees to take another stab at finishing the eighteen year-old The Awakening, featuring the second wife whom has long since divorced Foulkes.

Witnessing Foulkes’ Columbo-like approach to painting (“wait, just one more thing”) is a flat-out painful experience. Fortunately, it is considerably more enjoyable to watch him play “The Machine,” a drum kit augmented with marimbas and bicycle horns. Foulkes can in fact get quite a tune out of it, but there is still a high degree of performance art to his musical performances. Foulkes nearly hit the big time with The Machine as well, but ever so shockingly, he managed to sabotage his golden Tonight Show opportunity. Regardless, it is still cool to hear him jam on it.

To their credit, Halpern & Quilty committed years to One Man Band, capturing some of Foulkes’ most self-destructive moments along with the musical mischief. It is clear they have developed a mutual trust, but they never ignore his career-hampering excesses. Wisely, they are not overly concerned with Foulkes’ political art, aside from his near pathological obsession with Disney, manifesting in some rather gruesome depictions of poor Mickey Mouse.

There are a whole lot of cautionary lessons to be gleaned from One Man Band. At his best, Foulkes is also a rather interesting fellow to spend time with. At his worst, he represents the artistic temperament at its most dysfunctional. It is certainly a balanced portrait, more messily engaging than the Sol Lewitt documentary that Film Forum has programmed with it as a separate-admission double feature. Recommended for fans of Foulkes and/or The Machine, Llyn Foulkes One Man Band opens this Wednesday (5/7) in New York.

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