The painter stands about 20 feet in front of a sprawling tableau and makes a confession to the camera all too familiar to anyone who has ever witnessed addiction and obsession: “I can finish if I want to. I just want to see how far I can take it.” Llyn Foulkes is a Los Angeles-based artist who has spent his entire career brazenly avoiding categories and joyfully exploding convention. There are many reasons why he is — as the poster for the film Llyn Foulkes One Man Band asserts — “the most famous artist you’ve never heard of.” He deftly avoids a signature style, decries labels and even meanders from one medium to the next. He is at once a painter for the metropolitan gallery and a novelty musician for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And it is only his peers, not himself, who see contradictions in such a multi-tiered creative existence.
In turn, Tamar Halpern and Christopher Quilty’s documentary never attempts to define the subject in question, but rather it uses Foulkes’s strained relationship with the art world as a means of exploring where the art world ends and creative work begins. The result is a compelling, thoughtful, and sometimes hilarious depiction of the myriad of factors weighing down a paintbrush as it struggles to meet a canvas.
Foulkes opens the film with a poem read directly to the camera that declares an uncompromising vision of the art world and his role in it. Yet this quasi-romantic manifesto of autonomy quickly gives way to an exquisite depiction of the strange gap between the artist and the institution. Foulkes’s work does not and cannot exist outside the politics and demands of the gallery, whether he’s struggling over a deadline, “selling his soul” for the payouts of repetitive work or rebelling against the restrictive categories that museum spaces and art criticism box him into.
As he combats with obscurity, irrelevance and illegibility while struggling to re-craft his style and maintain his authenticity, one gets a sense that Foulkes would be unencumbered and confident to make great art if the art world simply didn’t exist. The irony of this is, of course, that his work wouldn’t exist without the art world — not because they provide the gallery spaces and publicity, but rather because they force onto him the constraints and pigeonholing that his work so often reacts to. A carefully self-made underdog, Foulkes has defined a career by refusing to define his career.
The behind-the-scenes creative labor that goes into Foulkes’s art makes up the majority of One Man Band’s running time, but not as a record of his method a la Corinna Belz’s Gerhard Richter Painting. Rather, the work on display here is more psychological and existential. Foulkes is a figure whose driving force is his perpetual dissatisfaction with his own work. Between finishing touches, Foulkes harangues Walt Disney’s cultural pollution (Mickey Mouse is a subject of much of his work), lists his prospective tasks ad nauseam, and brashly explains his philosophy and frustrations about all things art world (namely his role in it). Foulkes not only proves to be a naturally fascinating subject of magnetic intelligence and charisma, but One Man Band’s intimate and straightforward approach makes the man accessible despite his otherwise enigmatic character of his “band.”
The film thankfully avoids several traps it could have easily fallen into, like hagiography, exploitation of its subject’s notable eccentricities and didactic messaging about the art world. Instead, One Man Band deftly moves between its title character and the network of people and places that have helped make him what he is and, more importantly, what he isn’t. In doing so, the film explores how the artist and his work are never truly solitary. Context is not just something to be learned in an art history class. It’s the only way to honestly understand the relationship between the art and the artist. He may be an outsider, he may be defiant and he may not play well with others, but the central irony of Foulkes’s career is that his work and the world around it have never been mutually exclusive. He isn’t really a “one man band.”
Foulkes’s art, as best exemplified by the giant musical contraption known as the Machine that he’s performed on for decades, has no real stopping or ending point. Foulkes may eventually “finish” the aforementioned tableau that he obsesses over, but no work is ever “complete” according to the artist himself. Life, like art, is an exhausting work in progress, and the two are inextricable.