In fall 2003 the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts presented “In Quest of Oracles and Sacred Places: Renée Foulks’s Work of the Last Decade,” a show of sixteen paintings with accompanying studies, sketches and notebooks. The title of the exhibition refers to holy sites and the ancient oracles, pronouncements by seers and sibyls which could be ignored only at the peril of the questioner but were often enigmatic. Foulks’s paintings are similarly powerful and open to interpretation. She has adopted a motto that emphasizes primordial wisdom: mortui vivos docens, which can be translated “the dead teach the living.” This motto refers not only to her subject matter , which draws on Egyptian, Greek and Roman, biblical, Celtic and Native American myths and ceremonies, but also to her respect for the generations of artists who have come before her. She cites and eclectic group of influences, including Michelangelo, Frederic Church and Georgia O’Keefe. The O’Keeffe strain is most apparent in still lifes such as Vanitas: Third Casket (1994, 19” x 30”), Beaver Skull (1997, 18” x 22”) and Chinese Water Deer (1994, 17” x 21”). In all three bleached bone carries the emblematic charge of classic memento mori while also functioning as aesthetic material. The simple tabletops and neutral backgrounds of these images lend an aura of austerity, avoiding the blandishments of color found in the fruit and flowers of Renaissance Vanitas paintings and O’Keeffes’s painting deserts and sensuous blossoms.
More idiosyncratic are Foulks’s much larger canvases in the figure-in-a-landscape tradition. The key is her almost monochromatic palette, which gives flesh and stone a similar sepia-toned patina. The biblical story of the creation of Adam from dust comes to mind. In threshold Guardians (2001, 66” x 76”) the pervasive color is desert buff warming into russet or rose tonalities. The boldest color belongs to the snakes attending a trio of naked nymphs, in a modern riff on the classical legend of the Garden of the Hesperides. These serpents do not allude to the totemic Satan of the Eden narrative but to the classical—and preclassical—image of regeneration, the snake that sheds its skin in renewal, the Orphic emblem of wisdom, the ouroborus that makes the sign of eternity. Because Foulks avoids the fancy-dress paraphernalia of many mythological painters, however, her parables cannot be tied to any one tradition. She herself subscribes to no organized religion, although the spirituality and deep humanity of these works is obvious.
The landscape in Threshold Guardians is no lush garden but an existential rocky plain. A trinity of nude women hold the liminal position, the entrance from a cave into a distant valley. The red rock arch frames a blank-white and stormy grey sky. One woman has a small sun tattoo on her hip, symbolic of the daily ritual passage from darkness to light and back to darkness, a temporal microcosm of the journey of life. Are tehse dorman figures defenders of secrets or psychopomps like Dante’s Virgil, or both? The fetal position of the figures is a signature motif. The supine nude in The Seed (1993, 54” x 66”) lies at the root of a leafless tree, its spindly branches spreading the full width of the canvas. The silhouette of the figure, with raised hip, mimics the shape of the hillock that supports the tree. The dead-center placement of the body-tree nexus emphasizes the symbolic message: the seed that dies carries the germ of new life, a paradox familiar from the mysteries of ancient Eleusis to the New Testament.
Foulks is a mythopoetic painter. Her canvases open windows on eerily lunar landscapes, which she calls “portals of symbolic meaning.” Her figures are fully realized academic nudes, convincingly physical yet generalized into an anonymity that makes them representations of humanity rather than individuals. She avoids the erotic and the idealized in her elemental images, especially those of women. Her male figures, such as the standing figure in the foreground of The Keep (1996), actually have a more sensuous quality. The stories she tells, however, are less about gender than about the correspondences between the cycles of nature and human history.
Foulks’s working process is painstaking. Her sketchbooks are visual diaries where she develops her ideas, both literary and pictorial. She photographs natural objects and uses the prints to build up a composite, but life drawing is even more fundamental to her method. Small, fully developed studies prepare the way for large compositions, which have the gravitas of traditional history paintings. Like many artists before her, she creates cartoons on tracing paper, ready for transfer to the canvas. These traced-and-erased sheets are themselves elegant grisaille works. For the past ten years Foulks, who trained at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University, has been an artist-teacher at PAFA and the University of the Arts, carrying on a distinguished tradition that stretches back nearly two centuries. She has exhibited throughout the United States and is represented in many private and museum collections. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Broad and Cherry Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102. Telephone (215) 972-7600. On the web at www.pafa.org
American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2004, Volume 21, Number 1.