Tamar Halpern and Chris Quilty’s documentary, Llyn Foulkes One Man Band, focuses on the life and work of 78 year old painter and musician Llyn Foulkes. As the film engages in the history of the artist, we watch as he works on numerous pieces, including “The Lost Frontier,” a painting eight years in the making (and one that, like most of his pieces, isn’t so much finished as taken away from him at a deadline) and “The Bedroom Picture.” Alongside his paintings, we get to see and hear Foulkes as he sings and plays music on “The Machine,” a one-man band of horns, vibes, drums, cowbells and any and everything else.
I’ve seen a few documentaries now about brilliant minds and artists that aren’t embraced or considered as “successful” as their contemporaries, and the pattern seems to be one of self-destruction at the precipice of notoriety. In the case of Foulkes, getting kicked out of the Ferus Gallery early on in his career did tremendous damage, but so too has his instinct to do something that he wants to do, even if it is contrary to whatever the latest art movement is. Which, in my eyes, is part of what makes an artist.
For example, leaping from painting to creating music, with whatever you call that one-man band contraption of his, may seem like something insane to an outside observer, looking to pin their favorite artist down into this or that. In truth, knowing Foulkes’ background, as expressed in this documentary, for example, shows the move as something that actually makes a lot of sense. Foulkes’ love and appreciation of Spike Jones is a clear marker in how he could end up behind that musical kit. Maybe he made the move at the “wrong” time, but as judged by Foulkes, or everyone else? Whose opinion matters here?
Which is part of the artistic conflict seen in the film. Foulkes wants to make his art his way, but he also fights internally over the fact that he’s not better known. He wants to tinker and expand his paintings, but he’s got it in the back of his head that huge pieces, with animal corpses, may not sell, no matter how much effort he puts into it. To a certain degree he wants mainstream acceptance, but his art doesn’t always give him that satisfaction.
If you create something, and it manages to find itself amid a movement (often defined by anyone but the artist), and you get swept up in the notoriety and the exaltation of said movement, then cool. Art is about expressing something, or interpreting something, and if doing so works in a mainstream sense, great. If not, it is what it is.
And no, I’m not coming at this from some deification of the image of the “starving artist.” I think artists should be making money, and a life in an artistic field should not equate to a life of poverty. That said, it doesn’t surprise me when it does, either. I get it; I continually make decisions that I feel are right for Film Threat, for example, that fly in the face of what everyone else feels is the road to success. That which makes money doesn’t always line up with that which makes great art, whatever your definition (writing, music, film, etc), at least from my interpretation.
In the end, Llyn Foulkes One Man Band is a quality look into the life and art of a tremendous artistic mind. While the themes of the conflicted artist are not unique to Foulkes, his manner of living and working are. That’s ultimately the experience we get to share by watching this documentary.
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