John Lurie: “If I could teach people anything it would be to live in the moment”

EIn early 2006, American artist John Lurie finished work on a watercolor he titled bear surprise. The painting shows the animal standing on its hind legs in a meadow in front of a couple having sex on a picnic blanket, with the bear saying, “Surprise!” Within a few weeks, the image was uploaded to a Russian blog, with the speech bubble changed, to read “Preved,” a portmanteau that translates as “Hello Bear.”

This strange picture captured the imagination of the Russian-speaking Internet and in May of this year The Moscow time reported that it “grew popularity at the speed of an avalanche.” Lurie’s wayward bear has been featured in Russian films and TV shows and has appeared in countless other memes, even on a poster promoting the Russian edition of Impossibly Flying Through the Sky news week. Last month, as Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Lurie posted his original artwork on Twitter Once again. “Before!” he wrote. “What the hell Russia? Let Putin know he is alone in this horror.”

Needless to say, Lurie never expected any of his artwork to go viral on the other side of the planet, least of all this image. “bear surprise is a really bad painting,” he explains modestly from his home in the Caribbean. “That of all my paintings, that this one was out there – and you can’t believe the level it was out there on – just feels weird.” It shows that once you put art out into the world, you can’t tell , where it might end, a lesson mirrored by Lurie’s own peripatetic journey through music, film, and most recently, his deeply contemplative and unconventional HBO series. Painting with John. In the first season, he combined footage of his artistic talents with wild tales of cocaine use with musician Rick James and the time Barry White’s speaking voice made his testicles vibrate. Bob Ross, it’s not that.

One of Lurie’s paintings entitled: “I thought as I got older life would make more sense. That’s not that’


Born in Minneapolis in 1952, Lurie spent his teenage years enduring the ennui of a small town in Worcester, Massachusetts. In his insightful 2021 memoir The History of the Bones he recalled his early attempts to make it as a professional musician, including persuading Canned Heat to let him participate on harmonica at their 1971 show at Carnegie Hall with John Lee Hooker. By 1978, Lurie had taken up saxophone and formed the avant-jazz group The Lounge Lizards with his brother Evan and an ever-changing line-up of fellow musicians. The group was a mainstay of the New York art scene of the ’80s, where Lurie found kindred spirits in the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. He made a swashbuckling, effortlessly cool outsider character as part of a creative bubble that felt like the whole world at the time. “I didn’t think much about the future at the time,” he says. “In fact, for most of us, there was no universe outside of the area of ​​Houston to 14th St and Bowery to Avenue C and at no other time than this.

In 1980, Lurie appeared as the sax player in indie director Jim Jarmusch’s first film. permanent leave. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration, with Lurie playing lead roles in Jarmusch’s next two films, Stranger than paradise and Laid down by lawcast in the latter alongside Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits. In 1991 he reunited with Jarmusch and Waits for his surreal travel series fishing with John, where totally inexperienced angler Lurie was joined by a different celebrity guest each week as he hopped around the world from Montauk to Costa Rica to Thailand. The series seemed intentionally anticlimactic, with the New York Times Review noting, “There is no big bang payout at the end of these episodes; that’s part of what makes Fishing with John such an appealing alternative to the loud laugh track world of network television.”

After three decades away from our screens, during which he survived cancer and the debilitating effects of Lyme disease, Lurie returned last year with another show that serves as an antidote to high-stakes, high-profile prestige TV. Painting with John is built primarily around watching Lurie at work on his watercolors while telling a variety of weird and sometimes downright unbelievable shaggy tales, such as the one about the time he kept finding coins in his nose. At no point does he offer anything so prosaic as instructions for would-be Basquiats. “Welcome,” he announces in the first episode of the new second season, “to the show where I don’t teach you how to paint.”

Still, Lurie says that after season one, many fans told him he inspired them to pick up a brush, adding, “But I’ve also heard from people that it inspires them in other ways has, which hopefully is more period.” He says his intention for the show is to spur viewers’ creativity in whatever form it takes. “I’m just hoping to liberate people a bit,” he says. “If anyone If you were expecting a step-by-step guide to painting, this isn’t the case, but in a way, watching someone paint without being instructed is probably a much better way to learn – ‘put brush here, wear these.’ paint like that on…’.

While the first season was accompanied by music from Lurie’s long and idiosyncratic career, the recording of a brand new score for the second season marked an emotional breakthrough for a musician who had been left unable to perform by the effects of Lyme disease for more than two decades. He continued to write during rehearsals last year Twitter: “I’m not sure what that feeling is, I think I’m nervous.” Looking back on the moment now, he says he still can’t articulate his condition properly. “I felt something, but I’m not sure if it was nervousness,” he says. “When you can’t do something that has been your absolute reason for being all these years and then have the opportunity to do it again, there are a lot of emotions involved.”

Ann Mary Gludd James, Nesrin Wolf and Lurie ride horses through a fantastic landscape created by the artist herself in “Cowboy Beckett”.


While the second season is still influenced by Lurie’s painting and storytelling, it is more visually imaginative than the first. In the opening episode, Lurie performs a synchronized swimming routine through the magic of Monty Python-esque animation. A new segment spanning multiple episodes is titled “Cowboy Beckett,” in which Lurie and his longtime assistants, Nesrin Wolf and Ann Mary Gludd James, ride horses through lush, fantastical landscapes created by Lurie herself while she was in the fold speak in philosophical non-sequiturs. “Actually, it’s more like ‘Cowboy Ionesco,’ but ‘Cowboy Beckett’ sounds better,” says Lurie, who opens the first paragraph with the question, “Why is there something and not nothing?” It’s hard to imagine that there is any other TV show presents such a beguiling meeting of different worlds. “I’m not sure there’s a lot of similarities [between westerns and Samuel Beckett], that’s kind of an idea,” says Lurie. “But in terms of one place in time, I’m sure the Wild West was about as absurd as it gets.”

Like a bear in a meadow when you think you’re alone, Lurie’s show is full of surprises. While there may not be any paint-by-numbers tutorials, there are many deeper lessons about what it takes to live the life of an artist. “If I could teach people anything, it’s more about living in the moment,” says Lurie. “I’d also like to teach people to have empathy and respect for one another, but I’ll save that for season three.” A lofty ambition, but a fitting one for a show that paints the world a little brighter.

Painting With John airs Fridays on HBO and is available now in the US on HBO Max. A UK release date has yet to be announced. See more of Lurie’s art below johnlurieart.com

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/john-lurie-interview-painting-art-b2029950.html John Lurie: “If I could teach people anything it would be to live in the moment”

Tom Vazquez

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