Outsider art is the new blue-chip art. Or so various New York insiders would have you believe. From this summer’s Venice Biennial (curated by the New Museum’s Director of Exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni) to yards of boosterish column inches in the normally dry-eyed New York Times, a consensus has been reached that declares “Art Brut”—artist Jean Dubuffet’s raffish euphemism for insane-asylum art—visual culture’s pole star for the coming century. That’s Gotham tastemakers in a nutshell—nine times out of 10, they mistake a power play for the plot.
A market tale very much like the vogue for primitive art in the 1990s, the current excitement over minor artists like Southern folk fave Bill Traylor (at the American Folk Art Museum until September 22), the Italian-American Marino Auriti, and the Chicago-born doll-fancier Morton Bartlett (both in Gioni’s biennale until November 24), answers to an exhaustion with slick commercialism and multi-venue extravaganzas orchestrated for financial juggernauts like Damien Hirst (his catalogue raisonné for some 1,365 spot paintings is due out in the fall), Jeff Koons (recently at both David Zwirner and Gagosian galleries), and Paul McCarthy (currently at way too many venues throughout the city). In place of big shiny baubles, today’s “raw art” craze promotes unskilled stuff by Sunday painters, stitching septuagenarians, and religious cranks.
Virtually all of these artists’ works confirm rather than challenge the normal functioning of conventional commerce (as the spike in their prices illustrates). Their position toward the market is, after all, like their attitude toward art: naive. But even as ventriloquized by their well-connected cheerleaders, outsider art—in its gullible guilelessness—has precious little to say about our time’s most pressing issues: among them, the world’s festering economic malaise, perma-political protests, and the continual downsizing of the culture’s middle classes (bye-bye modest recording artist, so long mid-tier galleries). They also have little to say about contemporary art itself. Equally convenient—today’s new art market stars are either dead, mentally impaired, or can barely speak for themselves.
For an antidote to the present fad for de rigueur artlessness—and for a concentrated view of a genuinely challenging artist who has repeatedly embodied the role of the outsider—look no further than Llyn Foulkes’s shockingly terrific exhibition at the New Museum’s gleaming tower on the Bowery. Considering Gioni’s curatorial shortsightedness, it’s strangely fitting that this truly visionary exhibition—organized by L.A.’s Hammer Museum—landed smack inside his hometown office space. A few of Foulkes’s best pictures might have significantly stepped up Gioni’s stumbling biennial. In fact, I’d wager just one of this artist’s painting-cum-tableaux would have gladdened the general grousing I heard pegging the Venice show as looking like “everything was made by the same homeless person.”
A Los Angeleno through and through, Foulkes has tasted passing renown and profound anonymity—though it’s been all Veuve Cliquot since 2011, when he appeared in no fewer than seven exhibitions in L.A.’s multi-museum “Pacific Standard Time.” Foulkes has quipped that he gets rediscovered every 10 years. Truth is, he appears to cycle in and out of attention with the irregularity of Deloite & Touche accounting. Blink and you might miss him, which on the evidence of his first big museum outing in New York would be a shame.
His most complete career retrospective to date, Foulkes’s current exhibition features more than 100 drawings, collages, paintings, assemblages, and 3D tableaux, all of which chronicle a career cussedly devoted to the ideal of artistic autonomy, as well as a persistent hunger to stay one step ahead of everyone’s expectations except his own. From fairly inauspicious beginnings that saw him cycle through starter influences—Salvador Dalí’s cornball Surrealism, Antoni Tàpies’s scribbled canvases, Jasper Johns’s assemblages with beer cans and plaster casts—the Yakima, Washington–born Foulkes shook off imitation and, eventually, in hard-won artistic evolutionary time, moseyed into a funky, homespun strain of Pop picture-making he has resolutely made his own.
Starting in the early 1970s, Foulkes became—whether anyone noticed or not—one of America’s great contemporary history painters. Starting with the comically gruesome self-portrait Who’s on Third? (1971–73), the artist launched a series of “bloody headed” pictures of political and cultural subjects that included defaced images of Nixon, Ford, Taft, Reagan, and Buster Keaton. Painted on various homemade media and featuring trompe l’oeil limbs and sticks-for-ties jutting out of recycled frames, Foulkes’s cleavered faces invoke the existentialism of Francis Bacon’s screaming Portrait of Pope Innocent X as shot through the twisted taciturnity of thick-necked American authority—think J. Edgar Hoover after a vengeful skullfucking.
Later pictures bulked out his rowdy penchant for extra dimensionality within the normally sedate frame. Paintings like Pop (1985–90) and The Legend of Mickey Rat (1996)—Foulkes harbors a delicious animus for Disney and Mickey Mouse—not only jut out into space through the incorporation of stuff like clothing, TVs, and road signs, they recede, too, creating shadows and negative reliefs that turn picture windows into full-fledged, lapel-grabbing dioramas. Recalling Frederic Edwin Church’s 1859 landscape The Heart of the Andes, which the Hudson River School giant displayed to admiring crowds on West 10th Street behind palm fronds and velvet curtains, Foulkes’s more recent creations make a rare, electrifying spectacle of the world’s oldest art form. Few works I’ve seen in the past decade prove as acid or hog visual attention like Foulkes’s.
Which is why intention—that key notion that sends outsider-art lovers running for the aisles—matters so much with a largely self-invented artist like Foulkes. His showmanship and criticality may not inure him from being grist for the great corporate cultural mill, but it makes any thinking person who experiences his eye-goggling, brain-jarring attractions know perfectly well which side this artist is on.