It’s a bit of a shock to see Dennis Hopper show up, suave and healthy, as a source in this long-gestating documentary about the maverick Los Angeles artist Llyn Foulkes. He and Hopper ran in the same avant-garde ’60s circles along with Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, and company. Some of those artists prospered, but Foulkes dropped out of the gallery scene for decades, becoming a curio musician who performed his Dixieland-meets-Weimar cabaret music on The Tonight Show as a novelty act, like Tiny Tim. But Hopper is now dead and deserving of his own documentary, while Foulkes was doggedly and sympathetically followed for seven years (to age 77) by filmmakers Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty.
I wish I could report their faith was more well-placed. Various curators and peers testify to Foulkes’ young talent, but his landscape and political/historical tendencies make him seem revanchist even today. He missed the boat on conceptualism or Pop, stubbornly changed course when any painting series proved popular, then spent futile decades cutting up and reworking a few large assemblages-on-plywood, the paint heaped high for depth, animal carcasses and even TV sets appended into the textured tableaux. “Political art” is what he calls his work, much of it an angry, even macabre reaction to corporate might—symbolized by Mickey Mouse—and the desecration of the American frontier.
Perhaps because that art hasn’t sold too well, Halpern and Quilty focus more on the man than his oeuvre. Foulkes is like some old cowboy sage in a Sam Shepard play, both rueful and wise about his past misbehaviors toward ex-wives, tastemakers, and gallery owners. “I coulda played the game . . . ” he begins; then, like one of his paintings, he abruptly edits the thought: “Nah, I couldn’t have played the game.” One Man Band is an engrossing if overlong portrait of an overlooked artist. Still, some artists remain overlooked for a reason. And for all their determined effort to rescue Foulkes from obscurity, Halpern and Quilty had to leave the final happy coda for the press notes, after they completed filming: Foulkes finally sells one of his big works, 20 years in the making, to Brad Pitt. Dennis Hopper would’ve smiled at that. Runs Fri., Aug. 1–Thurs., Aug. 7 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 82 minutes.