Thinking the Unthinkable at Gagosian – Art and Cake

Llyn Foulkes: Bombs Away

Jim Shaw: Thinking the Unthinkable

Gagosian, Beverly Hills
Through February 25, 2023

Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
Destroyed, violently erased, and obscured faces, teeth and bones, hair and fur, salvaged wood, found fabric, infringed-upon Pop culture, dangerously performative capitalism, iconography and sometimes actual remnants of war, dexterity in a range of styles from the hyper-real to the expressionist, bricolage to bright realism, and a ribald visual wit that muddles up dimensionality and materials into metonyms and critique-laden caricatures—Llyn Foulkes is clearly enjoying himself, but he is not playing around. There’s a lot of work—literally a large number of pieces, and each one labor-intensive—in Bombs Away. Intimate and monumental paintings, sculptures, stage-set tableaux, and mixed media constructions made between 2018 and 2022 are all the more impressive for being both conceptually and physically hefty even after Foulkes’ seven decades of irascible, influential output. Spoiler alert: he’s still mad at Disney.

Of course, a few decades ago, when Foulkes began what would perhaps unexpectedly become a lifelong vendetta against The House of Mouse, the loathing wasn’t all that specific. The real subject of his work’s approbation was the uniquely American, exquisitely toxic merger of capitalism and culture, the ugliness of military bullying and environmental degradation, and how people are ruining everything. Mickey was an avatar of the villains in the story, and the company’s punitive attitude toward artistic license has always been pretty evil—but he was also a stand-in for us, for the artist and the viewer, the complicit and resistant witnesses of it all. In Bombs Away, Foulkes’ combination of a large number of individual portraits (you, me, them, bad guys, good people, everyone) with set-pieces sending up tradcore American family values, and an assertive presence of religious, militaristic, and patriotic iconography from Eastern and Western cultures makes it clear that his sites are still set on something bigger than just one epic grudge match.

Jim Shaw for his part is not particularly optimistic about the current state of things either. His paintings, sculptures, and dimensional mixed media works all have an aggressively recombinant aesthetic in which everything is implicated—from mythological legacies to comic books, the manipulative magic of Hollywood, political malfeasance, and rampant militarism (the show’s title references nuclear war, as does the monumental 2022 painting No Bikini Atoll). His trademark skill for nesting and layering dozens of different scenes, economies of scale, figures, settings, stylistic nuances, art historical and movie references, advertising and propaganda tropes, and implied meta-narratives is on full operatic display in the work of the past few years. Shaw is not only Thinking the Unthinkable, he’s figured out how to paint the unseeable. There’s sense in Shaw’s work that cognitive dissonance and paradox are the waters we’re swimming in, and a striving for a language to express that from within.

America, Hollywood, and War—Shaw offers a critique of the same unholy trinity that has Foulkes so animated. But in his paintings, Shaw offers a version of this critique which reaches back into art history to show us that art has always filled this function. His paintings are meticulous in how they resolve what could be a traffic jam of perspectives, planes, translucent and interlocking figures, morphing landscapes, and stacked storylines. Each work is available to be experienced as a tumultuous whole, and decoded for the parts that make up its message. Shaw’s work at times challenges the worthiness of what we value as a society, and at other times offers the respite of a clean, dark pun. Contemporaneous visual idioms may vary by century—from spears to atom bombs, nude goddesses to half-naked celebrities, unjust kings to corrupt world leaders, cave and cathedral walls to silver screens to the glass screens of our devices, economic injustice to, well, that’s the same. But the reminder that throughout history it has always been artists who are best suited to make it all make sense is well timed and appreciated.