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John Lurie Doesn’t Paint Happy Trees | Press "Enter" to skip to content

John Lurie Doesn’t Paint Happy Trees

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So, when do we learn how to paint?

In the HBO series “Painting With John,” the actor, musician and artist John Lurie talks about that time he did cocaine for three hours in a broom closet with Rick James and Steve Rubell, and that other time when he set himself on fire and wound up charred and naked with a machete in his hand.

He recounts the day he choked an eel (the same eel that appears on the cover of Lurie’s 1988 Lounge Lizards album “Voice of Chunk”). He describes contracting Lyme disease about 20 years ago, which he says led him to give up music and was among the reasons he began to pursue painting in earnest.

As captivating as these stories are, however, many seem to have little to do with the process of painting.

“They have nothing to do with painting,” Lurie conceded in a video call last week.

“Painting With John” premieres on Friday, three decades after the debut of his cult classic 1991 series “Fishing With John.” Like that series, which features scenes of Tom Waits stuffing a freshly caught red snapper down his pants and Willem Dafoe suffering from hunger and cold while ice fishing, “Painting” is not a how-to show.

“Bob Ross was wrong,” Lurie says in the first episode. “Everybody can’t paint.” (Also: His trees are not happy.)

And anyway, he said, it wasn’t even supposed to be a show at all.

“I thought, people are so depressed, let’s make a bunch of these one-minute-long things and put them on Instagram, just to cheer people up,” he said.

Lurie’s paintings have drawn impressive reviews from critics; Guernica magazine praised the artist’s “corrosive wit” and command of colors. Writing in The Times, Roberta Smith said his small ink drawings and gouaches “operate somewhere in the gap between William Wegman’s drolly captioned early drawings and Jean Michel-Basquiat’s acerbic diagrammatic images.”

For many years, beginning in the late ’70s, Lurie, 68, was a fixture of New York’s film, music and art scenes. He was a founder of the jazz group the Lounge Lizards, a prolific TV and film composer and an actor in landmark indie films like Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Down by Law.” In “Painting,” which is set at Lurie’s home in the Caribbean (he won’t say which island), he pulls from his assorted past lives, layering sensual close-ups of paint and canvas atop mesmerizing tunes from his musician days and stories culled from his life.

For fans of “Fishing,” which is available to stream on the Criterion Channel, this new series offers a different experience: no guests, a single location, just Lurie talking into a camera from a picturesque island. The show also explains a bit about what Lurie has been up to since he left the music and film scene nearly two decades ago: painting and more painting.

His work has appeared in galleries and solo shows around the world, and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. But that’s not, he said, why he makes paintings.

“I’m making them for me,” he said. “I’d be doing this even if they all just ended up under my couch at the end of the year.”

From his second home in New York, Lurie spoke about how the series came to be, beginning with the origin story of his first “With John” series. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

You’ve been painting for years. What made you decide to do a painting show?

Everybody was saying, Oh, you should do “Painting With John.” “Fishing With John,” “Painting With John” — yeah, great. But I didn’t think I’d be comfortable painting on camera. And then I thought, “Oh, I could tell these stories and paint for a while.” But I never expected it would go to HBO. Like, that first shot on the porch where I crash the drone? There’s all this hair coming out of my ears. If I knew it was going be on HBO, I would have cut the hair in my ears.

Can you really teach someone to paint on a TV show?

Um, maybe a little bit. But I’m not your guy, you know what I mean? I’ve been doing this full time for 20 years since I got the Lyme disease, and I’m still figuring out stuff which is probably in Lesson 3 if you took a class.

What do you get out of painting?

Oh, my God, I’m so lucky to have it. I used to hang out at [the British artist] Jack Smith’s house, and he would all day long be putting a little piece of plaster in the painting at the end. And I’d say, “Why do you do that?” And he said, “Well, when I don’t, I don’t feel clean.” For me, I have to work. It’s a lot like meditation, but I’m also just compelled to do it. When I don’t, I don’t feel good.

Is it like what playing music used to do for you?

It’s a lot like writing music, and a little bit like playing live. You’re creating a world, you know? And in a way you’re following the world that you’re creating as you’re making it. It’s not all you. At least the way I paint, it’s like, “Oh, that’s what I have — well, then, I’ll go here.” You do the same thing when you’re soloing with a band. It’s like, “Oh, that’s where I am, OK, now I’ll go there.” But it’s not like your conscious brain goes, “OK, do this, this and this.” At least not the way I work.

I always find it interesting that there are some people who are really talented in several artistic fields, while most people on Earth don’t have a lick of artistic talent.

Most of the good stuff I did were gifts. It wasn’t me. They pass through me. So if your soul is open to it, and you’re ready, then it’ll come through. Even if your technique sucks, something will come through. If you see some great musicians’ paintings, though, and they suck, I never understand how that happens. I was in a show of musicians who paint, and it was like Ron Wood, Miles Davis, John Lennon. And these were the worst paintings I ever saw. I couldn’t understand how they could be so bad. I’ve seen some decent Miles Davis paintings, but the one that was in this show was like, damn, Miles. What happened to you?

You talk about TV in the series, and not in a flattering way. But here you are, on TV.

At first, it was just going to be on my website or on Instagram in little tiny bits. I thought I would do it myself, and you would pay a nickel to watch it. I don’t know what I thought. But then we worked harder and harder on it, because we were enjoying it. Erik [Mockus, the show’s 34-year-old cinematographer and editor] and me, we enjoyed working together, and we just kept going. Although it is kind of a shocker, it’s going to be on TV.

In the early ’80s, I hired this bass player, and he kept [expletive] up. After the show, I’d go, “Look, that’s a B flat there, you’ve got to come in earlier on that section.” And then he turned to me and said: “Well, it’s your fault. You hired me.” So if people hate the show and go, this is boring, blame HBO! I didn’t tell them to play it.

People who know your work might be expecting something more like “Fishing With John.” But that series was very different. How did it come about?

I’d gone out to L.A. to play with Tom Waits on New Year’s Eve, and the next day we went fishing, and a friend videotaped us. And I had been fishing with Willem [Dafoe] a few times, and we videotaped that. And somebody saw the tapes and brought them to this Japanese company, and they said, “Yes, we want to make this.” And I was like, “Really?”

Unlike traditional fishing shows, “Fishing With John” captures what fishing is all about for many people, which is sitting around waiting for bites that hardly ever come. Do you even like to fish?

I fished with my dad, which was a big deal. And then I fished with Willem Dafoe, and went fishing with Flea from the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers several times. But as I did the show, I grew to not want to do it anymore. I was in Thailand sitting in a boat with Dennis Hopper, and then this thing came over me, and I was like: “I hate fishing. I don’t want to be out here anymore.”

On this new show, it’s mostly footage of you talking and painting. Do you miss acting?

When acting is really good, and you’re working on something good, that can be really something. But everything that goes around it is so unpleasant: the auditioning, the hierarchy of who’s the star. I think that’s why this show could be cool for people. It shows that if you want to write and direct a movie, you can just do it instead of going to the creepiest people on the planet with your script, and then being told some horrible thing like, “Look, if you make it a lot worse, then we can make it.”

And I think that’s what’s really optimistic about a show like this. That this kid and this old guy pulled this thing off for zero dollars.


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