Buyer beware: Purchase a canvas by the maverick Los Angeles painter Llyn Foulkes and he just might show up at your home/gallery/museum asking to make some changes. At least, that’s the impression given by “Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band,” an illuminating portrait of the artist as a hermetic, self-doubting, obsessive-compulsive perfectionist. Filmmakers can scarcely resist the story of a genius artist unjustly forgotten by time or sabotaged by his own personal demons, as “Searching for Sugar Man,” “Beware of Mr. Baker” and “Cutie and the Boxer” have all recently demonstrated. But Foulkes is more than deserving of the fuss, with co-directors Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty doing a mostly superb job of wrangling their wily, cantankerous subject as he struggles to complete two epic canvases many years in the making. It won’t take “One Man Band” nearly so long to travel the fest circuit, where it should do much to broaden interest in its subject and his creations.
The painter at work has always been a tricky subject for both narrative an documentary filmmakers, given the inherently uncinematic nature of watching paint dry — a dilemma most memorably circumvented by Henri-Georges Clouzot in his 1956 “The Mystery of Picasso,” with its indelible image of the Spanish master seeming to paint directly on to the camera’s lens. While “One Man Band” doesn’t go to quite such elaborate lengths, it does adopt the air of a queasy thriller in its extended scenes of Foulkes in his Los Angeles studio, taking hammers, circular saws and other heavy machinery to his densely layered, cobbled-together canvases.
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Foulkes’ unusual, three-dimensional paintings, with bits of fabric and other real objects affixed to their surfaces (one even includes the carcass of an actual cat), represent merely the latest incarnation of the artist’s varied body of work. Beginning with a series of desert-themed rock paintings that made him a cause celebre of the ’60s SoCal art scene, Foulkes has made subsequent forays into collage art and Dali-esque surrealism. Then there is his parallel career as a singer-songwriter, whose signature instrument may also be his crowning artistic achievement: a room-sized, homemade conflagration of drums, bells and bicycle horns known simply as “the machine.” For a stretch in the 1970s, “One Man Band” argues, Foulkes was better known for his music than his paintings, touring with a support group known as “The Rubber Band” and even earning a gig as the fill-in for Doc Severinsen on “The Tonight Show” — an opportunity squandered when Foulkes got into a fight with one of his bandmates.
Directed with an affectionate but not uncritical eye by Halpern (a veteran of several narrative indie features making her nonfiction debut) and Quilty (a longtime Hollywood sound recordist), “One Man Band” opens in 2004, one month before Foulkes’ promised delivery of “The Last Frontier,” a massive landscape painting that he has been working on continuously since 1997. In its heft and thickly encrusted layers of paint, the canvas recalls artist Jay DeFeo’s similarly obsessive “The Rose,” which the avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner memorably filmed being forcibly removed (by crane) from DeFeo’s San Francisco apartment in 1967. By Foulkes’ own admission, none of his paintings are ever finished — just taken from him when the time comes to exhibit or sell them — and whether it is method or merely madness, it’s undeniably fascinating to watch him fine-tune bits of light and perspective, talking to himself as he goes, seemingly oblivious to the camera’s gaze.
When the septuagenarian Foulkes isn’t working, he’s frequently ranting against the insidiousness of the art world and the Walt Disney Co. (a favorite bete noire, evinced by the recurring image of a deformed or debauched Mickey Mouse in his paintings). The film supplements this with testimonials from Foulkes’ children, ex-wives, collectors (including the late Dennis Hopper), curators and critics, resulting in a complex portrait of an artist who has perhaps shrewdly, perhaps self-destructively — perhaps both — refused to swim with the tide. Yet it’s one of Foulkes’ many contradictions that, while he has done much to consign himself to the margins, he openly craves wider recognition — a possibility that hovers throughout the film, as a New York exhibition comes and goes, followed two years later by a group show at L.A.’s Hammer Museum (which went on to present an extensive Foulkes retro in 2013).
For the Hammer show, Foulkes readies another long-unfinished painting, “The Awakening,” which depicts an elderly couple modeled on the artist and his ex-wife Kati Breckenridge. In its initial stages, he conceived of the painting as a way of saving his marriage. Now it may serve as the springboard to a Foulkes revival, or at least the kind of sale he needs to sustain his modest lifestyle. (Since the completion of the film, “The Awakening” has been purchased by none other than Brad Pitt.)
Throughout, “One Man Band” resounds with a sense of art making as a profoundly solitary, intensely physical endeavor, and of Foulkes himself as the ultimate work-in-progress.