“I can talk about the people in the paintings or the things in the paintings, but as far as talking about art, I think you just look at it,” says L.A.-based artist Hudson Marquez, whose new series of paintings depicts people like Jayne Mansfield, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sophia Loren and Ray Charles and things like stilettos and Cadillacs. “Anybody who talks about their own art is, like, full of shit,” says Marquez. “They should just be quiet. Let people look at the art.”
While we couldn't get Marquez to talk about his new series of eight acrylic paintings now on view at La Luz de Jesus Gallery under the name “High Humidity” — one of many references to his native New Orleans, where 100 percent humidity without rain isn't uncommon — we did get him to dish on his hometown and some of his favorite subjects to paint: strippers and jazz singers.
“I've painted [blues singer] Bobby Blue Bland before, I've painted [blues pianist] Professor Longhair before,” says Marquez, who didn't set out to make a show about New Orleans but quickly realized that the Southern jazz iconography was populating all of his new work. “When I met and rediscovered Professor Longhair, he was a seminal piano player from New Orleans in the 1960s,” says Marquez. “Last time he played was in the early 60s and I spent about a year trying to unearth him and get him back on his feet. He was my friend, and he was a huge deal in New Orleans. I named one of my cats after [his song] 'Tipitina.'” (The orange Manx appears in the painting Jayne Mansfield and Professor Longhair Play Chess.)
Another painting, Ahmet Ertegun Gives Ray Charles A Car, depicts real jazz singers in completely fictional situations imagined by the artist. Marquez says the painting is a comment on how the record industry exploits musicians, as illustrated in his wild scenario of 1950s-era record exec Ertegun giving a new car to his client, a blind man. Also portrayed in the painting is Bobby Marchan, a New Orleans singer and drag queen whom Marquez befriended as a teenager. “Ray [Charles] was staying at Bobby's house, maybe. I guess,” Marquez adds. “I made it up,” he finally admits of the story.
While paintings like The Plot Against JFK (featuring Mafia Kingfish Carlos Marcello and musician Ike Turner, whom Marquez refers to as “the devil”) and Ernie K-Doe Begs Sophia Loren (in which the former begs the latter to be his mother-in-law) similarly position pop culture icons in imagined situations, paintings like Jayne Mansfield and Visitors to the Cadillac Ranch are true narratives that recount Mansfield's death and the Cadillacs owned by various celebrities, respectively.
“I spent a lot of time when I was a kid in the strip clubs,” says Marquez, who remembers seeing Mansfield dance in her striptease act at Gus Stevens' nightclub in Biloxi, Mississippi shortly before her untimely death in 1967. “We were locals and we were white, and they would say, 'Aren't they cute?' We used to go to the 500 Club and Bourbon Street was really a wonderful place, before it got cleaned up, and now it's turned into a t-shirt shop horror show with thousands of kids puking. It's a nightmare. But when I grew up in the early '60s, when I was 13, 14, it was the end of an era. We got to see all these incredible strippers. There was Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm and Lily Christine, 'The Cat Girl,' and that had a huge influence on me. It wasn't lewd. It wasn't like strip clubs today that are like a gynecological horror show. You had to wear pasties. And they danced. And there was a live band that played for them.”
The lively strip club scene Marquez is describing is portrayed in At the 500 Club, a painting that depicts a burlesque show attended by Bobby Blue Bland and Popeye — yes, the cartoon character. (“I used to see Popeye a lot when I drank,” Marquez says. “I stopped drinking and he stopped coming out a lot.”) The other characters in the painting are based on Marquez's friends: “the gal is an old friend” named Rebecca, the drummer in the band is L.A. drummer Paul Body and the guy announcing the show “is a good friend.”
For all his glorified images of New Orleans underground idols, Marquez says he'd never again want to live in the city that's provided endless fodder for his paintings (he's lived in L.A. since 1976). “It's just the most repressive, horrid society. It's a terrible place for artists,” he says. “I grew up there and my family's been there since 1742. There's ghosts on every corner. On almost every corner, I know somebody who's died drunk in a car accident. It's a very small town, and I'm just never comfortable there.
Marquez used to take in nightlife every night, but explains that he doesn't go to art openings anymore because there's “too many youths,” he doesn't go to strip clubs anymore because of the changes he explained earlier and he doesn't take Pico Blvd. all the way to Mexico anymore because now “it all [looks] the same, all the way there.” And now, of course, “there's too many people here.”
But when Marquez does leave his home near Hancock Park, he frequents Musso & Frank's Grill and the Mint (“It's a rock club that's been around for 100 years, and I go out and see my friends play. I go see X and I see Los Lobos and I see David Alvin”) and he rides his motorcycle around town or goes to the burlesque show Lucha VaVoom. “I've always been cranky but now I'm just overly-cranky,” says Marquez. “But I don't want to live anywhere else.”