The Sublime Joy of ‘Painting With John’

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Some years back, my wife bought me a copy of Learn to Draw: Volume One by John Lurie. I’m not sure there’s a second part on the way, but for a fan of Lounge Lizards, his roles in Jim Jarmusch's movies, and his short-lived surreal joyride of a television show Fishing With John, it was the perfect gift, and about what you would expect from the same guy who painted Bear Surprise.

Inside, you’d find crude drawings of dogs with legs of Florida, a family of penises on vacation, and a woman wearing a barn for a hat. The vibe is very much teenaged kid sketching on his algebra quiz, and, yes, they’re all grin-inducing, but even his sketches in their childlike scrawl have a particular style about them. There’s a personality and an aesthetic that’s clearly on display.

That book felt like a treat because no one was really expecting that kind of gift from him. Lurie was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease, and he could no longer perform music, could no longer act in films, or go ice fishing with Willem Dafoe and Tom Waits. He had taken up painting, and that seemed to be that.

But if you follow John Lurie on Twitter, you know that he never really went away. He talks about the Knicks and asks about the reeds Johnny Hodges used. He still paints, and a few of his pieces have made their way into MoMA’s permanent collection. He’s also written and directed a new show for HBO called, Painting with John.

If you’re looking for a Fishing redux, this is not that. It’s often funny and silly, but it’s also very profound and moving. I don’t want to say it’s wistful, more like we unexpectedly received an invitation to Lurie's island home and stayed for a few days. We get to sit by his side in the middle of the night while he’s painting, something he does quite often as he suffers from insomnia and sleep apnea, a direct result of radiation treatments after a bout with cancer.

But don't assume this will be a land of happy trees.

“Bob Ross was wrong,” he says in the first episode. “Everybody can’t paint. It’s not true. So, it’s very optimistic to think that everybody can. I think that everybody can paint when they’re young. In fact, most of the best paintings I've ever seen were put on a refrigerator with a magnet.”

That's not the sound of someone patting themselves on the back for accomplishing this very hard thing. Because, yes, it is a very difficult thing to do well. But if you have young children, it’s not all that tricky to take a look at your kid’s work and think that you have the next Jackson Pollock on your hands. They're so in tune with everything, and they seem to have already arrived—they’re already complete. You can’t really teach intuition, but you also can’t deny those instincts we have when we’re much younger. But getting back to that—there's the rub.

"Pig wolf was hopelessly lost but refused to admit it." Watercolor and gouache on paper, John Lurie, 2020.

It’s the it, the same it everyone romanticizes that gets pounded out of you. Lurie speaks of his parents and how they helped nurture him and his siblings, how they kept that feeling of childlike wonder intact by just letting them be kids. “In my case, they might have gone too far, and I’m still searching for my inner adult,” he jokes. It’s about finding your way back to that part of your monkey brain that can do that sort of thing, free from your insecurities and criticism. So if your kid still doodles in the margins of their homework, for God’s sakes—let them.

There are more chestnuts like this sprinkled throughout the series. Lurie implores you to make sure that you have a little fun every day by doing things like rolling a tire down a hill. Maybe walking around with a branch and pretending you’re an elephant. He goads you into writing a poem about the sunset. And, you know, no pressure there.

But what’s really remarkable about the show is the actual painting. Long passages go by watching Lurie’s brush swirl about the page, pinpointing where the branches of a tree should go, or watching his watercolors bleed into the paper as they splotch and dribble about. It’s incredibly soothing to watch as something begins to take shape. It feels like scribbling in a way, but you know that it's anything but (though it’s quite helpful that each episode ends with what feels like five minutes of credits showing off his work). Even if you decide to tune out Lurie’s voice or the music from his alter ego Marvin Pontiac, it’s immensely satisfying and calming just to be a fly on the wall. Because really, what’s he doing? What the fuck is he painting?

"Gokyuzu can't be the word for sky. It should be the word for pig farmer." Watercolor and gouache on paper, John Lurie, 2020.

The whole show feels like a close companion to comedian Joe Pera’s quarantine special, a twenty-plus minute montage of discarded footage for his Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks With You. It's a compendium of material he couldn’t release because it was just “too relaxing,” a collection of seemingly incidental remarks featuring trees, fish, and a recipe for maple syrup toast. Sure, it might lull you to sleep, but both shows have a comforting quality, and Lurie's new program allows your mind to drift and contemplate color choices and shapes. Plus, there are genuinely much worse things than wondering, “Hey, I could probably do that, too, right?

“I just want people to know that none of the trees in my painting are happy,” he jokes. “They’re all miserable. The flowers, in particular, are miserable. They hate life.” But John Lurie isn’t miserable. There’s nothing wretched or dismal here, no real artifice or tricks up his sleeve. Just an artist who used to do one thing he loved and couldn’t do it anymore, so he found something else he could love, and he did that instead.

So, no, there’s nothing wrong with getting yourself a few brushes and maybe getting back to a part of yourself that you don’t remember as much.