The silhouette of a skateboarder doing a kick flip is sloppily painted across a utility box sitting near the corner of Robinson and Fifth avenues in Hillcrest. Scribbled in black Sharpie pen right under the skateboard are the words "You Will Die."
Those words stuck in my mind as I walked to a nearby café to meet with artist David Russell Talbott, but it wasn't until the very end of the interview that I realized the obvious connection between his artwork and the cryptic graffiti.
Talbott's loud, often disturbing imagery-the dark, deranged stuff people don't like to admit to actually liking-sticks in the brain in both a bothersome and intriguing way. For some reason, a bloody, carved-out coffin in the middle of the late actor Sal Mineo's chest is something that makes the eyeballs linger.
Sigmund Freud called it the death instinct-the yearning to give up the struggle of life in return for the solace of the grave. The seductive power of death, Freud said, can be blamed for what modern parlance has us calling the "lookyloo" phenomenon. It's what causes people to rubberneck in hopes of catching a glimpse of something gruesome when there's an accident on the side of the road.
Capitalizing on the nastiness of human nature, Talbott's work mixes the gore of death with larger-than-life portraits of old Hollywood stars. With influence stemming from comic books and pulp magazines published from the 1930s through the early 1950s, Talbott transfers the gritty old style to his canvases with quick brush strokes and acrylic paint, often adding at least one piece of mixed media-an earring or perhaps a cigarette-for added effect. The end result is pop art with a twist.
Talbott's newest series, PULPCORE, features eight paintings spelling out P-U-L-P-C-O-R-E.
"The "E' stands for "Evil is everywhere," Talbott explained. "It's an image of a boy looking at a dead body he stumbled onto in the woods. The words "Jimmy didn't kill the girl, he was just looking at the body' are painted alongside."
The PULPCORE series, along with several mostly black-and-white pencil-and-pen drawings from Talbott's upcoming book, Hollywood Eats its Own: Rumors, Death & Scandal in Tinseltown, will be hanging at Urban Grind, 3797 Park Blvd. in Hillcrest, through the beginning of March. The opening reception will be held from 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17.
What's with the pulp obsession, man?
While all his childhood friends were reading X-Men, Talbott was buried in old-school comic books and pulp fiction. He quickly became obsessed with crime noir. Authors like Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson helped shape his work.
"Those books were gritty, but also the cover art had a strong impact," Talbott said. "It was always something that grabbed your attention right away.... That's what I try to do in my pieces-have some sort of a strong image."
Talbott also has an odd obsession with old-school ad campaigns. He sees something under those plastic smiles and shiny Cadillacs.
"In the '50s there was that candy-coated society, post World War II. Everything seemed really sweet, but there was kind of a darker undertone. I try to use that appeal. There's this perfect family, but you open the closet door and so many skeletons fall out."
Talbott's aunt Gloria was a Hollywood actress-mostly the B-list kind-and a self-proclaimed "scream queen." Every time little Talbott and his family went for a visit, Gloria was gushing with the latest dish from the Hollywood scene. Fascinated, Talbott began researching the rumors. He's now working on a book he says will help set the record straight on topics like the Jayne Mansfield murder and other, mostly gruesome tales from Tinseltown.
"The book does deal with somewhat the darker side, but there's also some lighter stuff," Talbott said. "I try to lighten it up with humor from time to time because you don't just want to hear about incest and death all the time."
The book is set for publication by the end of the year.
More on the man
Talbott joined his first band in high school. The Infantry, as they called themselves, were "making it big" back in the '80s, opening shows at The Casbah when it was still called The Pink Panther. The band fell apart in the '90s and Talbott focused on his art for a bit, doing group shows at the old Euphoria gallery and working on websites and other graphic-design gigs on the side.
In 1997, he abandoned his art for one more shot at music and joined Skydivers. The band had a good run, producing underground star Steve Rodriquez, who went on to play bass for The Dragons, but eventually fell apart in 2004. Talbott reluctantly hung up his guitar and got a day job. A year later, he quit the day job to become a fulltime artist.
"I decided that I have to devote 100 percent of my time to doing this," said Talbott. "This is what I want to do... so here I am."