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Documentary profiles consistently inconsistent Llyn Foulkes

The artist zigs when others zag, confounding critics and galleries alike with his abrupt shifts in direction

Llyn Foulkes with his percussion instrument he calls "The Machine"
Llyn Foulkes with "The Machine," his percussion instrument (Photo/Abigail Gumbiner)

Llyn Foulkes, “the most famous artist you’ve never heard of,” takes creative eccentricity to new levels.

A painter who obsesses over pieces, reworking them for years at a time, Foulkes once spent so much time creating and destroying a painting that it cost him his marriage.

He’s also a musician whose disagreements with bandmates led him to build a fanciful instrument called “The Machine” that he plays solo.

Foulkes is the subject of Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, an appealing documentary to be screened Feb. 11 at USC. The Visions and Voices event will feature a conversation afterward between Foulkes and Tamar Halpern ’92, MFA ’97, who directed the film with Christopher Quilty.

A nice rapport

Halpern, the daughter of an artist, encountered Foulkes when both lived in the Brewery Art Colony in downtown Los Angeles. She cast him for a few scenes in an earlier feature film she wrote and directed, and established a friendly relationship.

Observing their relationship, influential editor and Art in America critic Raphael Rubinstein asked Halpern why she wasn’t making a documentary on Foulkes. This led to the film, which turned into eight years of filming and editing.

What started as a 20-minute film about Foulkes finishing “The Lost Frontier” — the most ambitious painting of his career, about the cultural and ecological destruction of Southern California — morphed into a full-length documentary after the filmmakers followed him to New York City for the painting’s gallery opening, which was a flop.

Such reversals have studded Foulkes’ career. As the film’s press material candidly declares: “Over the past five decades, he has been consistently inconsistent, confounding critics and galleries with dramatic changes of direction whenever it seemed he was about to be overtaken by popular acclaim.”

A maiden effort

Halpern said it was Foulkes’ unrelenting struggle that compelled her to make the film, her first documentary.

When we followed him to New York, and no one came to his opening, we knew we had a real story.

Tamar Halpern

“When we followed him to New York, and no one came to his opening, we knew we had a real story. Why is Llyn Foulkes being ignored? He felt he was being erased from art history. I couldn’t get to the bottom of it.”

The film is an inside look at what it really takes to be a career artist, she said.

“It’s the insecurity and fear and the choices you have to make to be true to yourself,” she said. “He makes art for himself and refuses to play the game.”

It’s an issue that resonates with viewers regardless of whether they have a creative bone in their body, Halpern observed.

“People tell me that Llyn is the most honest person they have ever seen on screen,” she said. At screenings, “the film inspires a lot of discussion and thinking about it days afterward.”

In a twist after the film was completed, Foulkes’ artistic life pivoted again when a curator at the Hammer Museum later championed his work, resulting in a career retrospective in 2013 at that museum, the New Museum in New York, and another in Germany.

“He had the rare occurrence of being rediscovered when he was almost 80,” Halpern said.

The event was organized by the USC Roski School of Art and Design, specifically Jennifer West, who teaches video art and photography, and ceramics professor Karen Koblitz. It is co-sponsored by the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where Halpern received her MFA in film production. (Her earlier degree was from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where she took her first documentary class from Professor Joe Saltzman.)

Another screening will be held March 2 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with Halpern and Foulkes in attendance.

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Documentary profiles consistently inconsistent Llyn Foulkes

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