For forty years Llyn Foulkes has been painting “bloody heads”—mutilated, eyeless faces of male power figures. Like Francis Bacon’s screaming Magdalenes, they are hermetic emblems of postmodern angst. Unlike Francis Bacon’s screaming Magdalenes, they were inspired by Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.
That is one surprise in the Hammer Museum’s ever-surprising Llyn Foulkes retrospective. The Hammer show is sure to prompt a reappraisal of one of L.A.’s hardest-working artists.
The young Foulkes was a proto-goth, dressing in black and keeping a raven as a pet. Below is the quintessential photo portrait by his then father-in-law, Disney animator Ward Kimball. A friend who worked as night watchman at a funeral home invited Foulkes to see an autopsied corpse. The scalp had been peeled down over the forehead. “It freaked me out,” Foulkes said in the Hammer’s audio tour. It also reminded him of Moe Howard’s bowl haircut.
Foulkes had been working on a self-portrait that wouldn’t gel. He went home and painted blood over the face, making it look like a red wig. The hair was less Moe Howard than Foulkes’ own beatnik cut. A mask further concealed the face. This became the first bloody head painting, Who’s on Third? (1971-1973; top of post, right).
Buster Keaton preceded the Stooges in the pie fight game. He was also an avid baseball player, boasting that he could hit someone with a pie while running from second to third base. Foulkes knew that quote and free-associated Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine to derive the painting’s title.
Pie fights are surrealist schtick in which the “victim’s” facial identity is disturbingly nullified by gobs of shaving cream masquerading as custard. Annililation of identity is the art-schtick of the bloody heads, the Bacon Magdalenes, the Baldessari circles, and porn-star shots with bars over the eyes.
“The main thing about directing is: photograph the people’s eyes,” said film director John Ford. Himself, Ford wore dark glasses and sometimes an eye patch (right). Foulkes’ bloody heads are an inversion of Ford’s formula. They support the not-entirely-crazy hypothesis that contemporary art is, increasingly, about putting a minus sign before Hollywood.
Hammer curator Ali Sobotnick notes that Foulkes’ bloody heads are almost all male. In the 1930s, Hal Roach Studios had a rule that attractive young women should not be shown taking a pie in the face.