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Farhad Mirza: Transfiguration and Magic

The many lives of John Lurie

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Photo Credit: Nesrin Wolf.

By Farhad Mirza

When I first heard that the celebrated actor and musician, John Lurie, had quit playing music and become a full time painter, I feared the worst. After all, success can dilute ambition, surround you with sycophants and inflict upon you a delusional sense of self-importance. History is littered with such narcissistic endeavors and all of them have one thing in common: they come about in the absence of a life defining struggle – They don’t smell of sweat, they don’t taste of blood.

But John Lurie evades this categorization. Whether it’s his sultry performances in early Jim Jarmusch films, Stranger than Paradise, and Down by Law (in which he starred alongside Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits), the cult classic TV show Fishing with John (described by one critic as “Waiting for Godot” on water) or the anarchic beauty of the music he produced with The Lounge Lizards, Lurie has always brandished a mysterious and visceral touch that seems most pronounced on his canvas.

Lurie’s paintings do not come across as an afterthought or a retirement plan. They don’t seem like a hobby, monetized by the success of his other talents. There is something strikingly authentic about his work.

His command of colors is astonishing. Take, for example, a personal favorite: The Sky is Falling. I am Learning to Live with It.

The velvety darkness of the twilight sky, perforated by crumpled pieces of rusty shrapnel descending like snowflakes upon the lonely figure of a pouting man – Here, Lurie proves himself a gifted craftsman, able to convey raw emotion and delicate moods.

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The Sky Is Falling, I am Learning to Live with It.

So, how did he manage this rare miracle? Where did he pay his dues?

From 1979 till 2000, Lurie served as the lead saxophonist of The Lounge Lizards, one of the punchiest jazz ensembles to come out of the New York ‘No Wave’ scene. The group left an indelible imprint on music history by bringing to the forefront the extraordinary talent of Lurie, his brother, Evan, and other widely celebrated musicians such as Steven Bernstein, Marc Ribot and Anton Fier.

The 2000’s brought personal turmoil as symptoms attributed to Chronic Lyme Disease disallowed Lurie from performing music, turning his entire world upside down. Things got worse when violent threats made by a stalker, and a catastrophic New Yorker story about the incident, led him to move out of New York and start afresh.

Though Lurie had always dabbled with painting, the form came to play a renewed role in his life as it eased his symptoms. Soon, he found himself painting more regularly and by 2004, it had become a full time vocation, driven by the passions that had once inspired him to pursue music.

Within a brief period of time, Lurie managed to reinvent himself as a skilled painter, demonstrating emotional sensitivity, a corrosive wit and an ability to create sensation for colors. His paintings have been exhibited in Munich, Zurich, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Montreal, Milan and New York.

Lurie recently concluded his hugely successful exhibition at the M77 gallery in Milan, Italy. Guernica caught up with him over email to talk about art, politics, humor and how one of his paintings became an overnight sensation in Russia

— Farhad Mirza for Guernica Daily.

Guernica: I have heard you compare your art to cavemen paintings. You say they don’t have a particular philosophical foundation – you simply feel compelled to do them. Why do you think humans feel this compulsion to produce art? Where does it come from, and how does it manifest itself in your life?

John Lurie: I don’t know where the drive comes from. I feel cleaner on the days where I am painting as opposed to the periods when I am not, that is certain to me. In a sense it is a transfiguration, what comes at me in my life or what I see going on in the world comes out as something beautiful or hopefully beautiful.

But there is never the conscious thing like that. And I don’t want to look at it too closely or it could mess the whole thing up. I start out making my paintings for me. I don’t see it as a form of communication. Until, of course, after they are done and I want people to see them.

And want them to be recognized. But while I am making them I just try to get lost in them. Kind of like it’s a prayer.

It isn’t like a basketball player is out on the court hoping that people like the game of basketball as the game goes on. If people don’t see it, they don’t see it.

Guernica: When did you learn to paint, and do you remember who or what influenced your development?

John Lurie: My mother had been a painter and had taught art in Liverpool. She wasn’t painting when I was a child but there was just an awareness of stuff.

When I was nine, her birthday was coming up and I went into a store to look for a present with my three dollars. I found this print that I liked and I got it for her.

When she opened it, she said, “oh, that is Paul Klee, you have good taste.”

But when did I learn to paint? I started painting when I was two, like everyone else, but I never stopped.

I think something both my parents did helped all three of us hold onto a certain innocence in our work, to not be afraid of it or discard it as something unwanted.

I have said this before, but most of the best paintings I have seen in the last twenty years or so, were taped to people’s refrigerators.

Guernica: You said the process feels like getting lost inside a prayer, which is interesting because I feel like prayers are the imprints of our desires on the echo chamber of existence. They are made out of silences, that is why we think our prayers will dematerialize if we vocalize them in front of someone else. But at a certain point, you have to invite people into a gallery to judge the quality of your prayer – this incredibly personal, fragile thing, stuck between two worlds, with an umbilical cord around its neck. That is an odd intrusion, don’t you think? How do you find the balance between the public and personal aspects of your work?

John Lurie: Perhaps prayer wasn’t the right word. It is more like I attempt to create a world that hypnotizes me as I make it. I hope others can get lost in it in the same way, but to be honest, I don’t care that much.

It isn’t like a basketball player is out on the court hoping that people like the game of basketball as the game goes on. If people don’t see it, they don’t see it.

It is a fragile thing and most people recognize that and respect it. Even if for whatever reason, they don’t like the painting. An intruder is someone who enters your world uninvited. There are of course the haters. The people who feel ugly and want you to feel ugly too. You try to see them for what they are and move on.

Guernica: Where does a painting begin and where does it end, or does it ever end at all? Run me through the process of coming up with a painting, choosing your subjects, your colors, and creating a sensation for the passage of time on a two dimensional, flat surface.

John Lurie: The paintings usually start as abstracts and then I look at them and look at them, and like a Rorschach test, I try and see what it is.

With The Sky Is Falling, I am Learning to Live with It, that blue background color came almost straight from the tube with a little black and purple mixed in. I did the background and started adding almost the exact same branch, squiggly pattern as in another painting, The Bird from Passaic Came Out of the Mosaic and Bought a Cup of Coffee for the Queen.

But I mixed it a little more yellow and adding it on top of the blue sent it into a green direction.

I started in the upper left corner and worked my way down. Like a house painter would paint a wall.

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The Bird from Passaic Came Out of the Mosaic and Bought a Cup of Coffee for the Queen.

Once I was almost all the way to the bottom, I knew that it required something orange at the bottom. But wasn’t sure what. I didn’t want to put a person because that can come out too literal. Either that or it can be a bit cartoonish, which I really don’t like.

There is often a moment where I have been working on a background for a month or so and the painting becomes a little too precious. I have to go – “oh fuck it” at some point.

So I did and splashed on the orange where I thought it was needed. Not being sure what it would be. I went online and found this profile of a Dinka tribesman photo, that I have used before, to be the shape of the man’s profile. The man was a little too pronounced and I added specks of water to loosen the paint. And dabbed it with a Q tip. This gives it the sort of broken quality.

I think humor is actually a very serious thing. I think the people who shaped culture, for the better, in the last 50 years or so, more than almost anyone else are people like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and even Chris Rock, back when he was doing the edgier stuff.

They almost always start as abstract paintings. I have an idea of a set of colors and see what I have. A lot of things, the best, more magical things in the paintings just sort of happen. They aren’t things I thought of in advance. They are more things I am given. What paint does, in watercolor more than oil but it happens in oil too, are things one never expects if you work freely. I suppose I learned a lot coming to this after years of playing improvisational music. I have to trust my intuition and I work in the moment, when that moment seems to be happening. And to leave it alone when it is not.

Guernica: So when you start painting, do you ever know what you want to paint about, or are your paintings somewhat autonomous?

John Lurie: It used to be if I had a solid idea before starting or even a funny title in mind – and then painted it, they tended to come out a little stiff, a little contrived.

That is less true in the last couple of years. I recently did a painting of a turtle for Eric Goode’s Turtle Conservancy. And I am happy with how it turned out. But as I look back at the better paintings over the years, almost without exception they started only with a palette in mind and then developed from there.

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Turtles ascending over the greed that tries to destroy them.

Guernica: Are you fond of animals? The presence of animals in your art seems to satirize the absurdity of the human condition, what with all its suicidal hubris and petty anxieties. Deer and the Stoplight comes to mind…

John Lurie: I think the Native Americans had the right idea about preserving and respecting the earth. Not just using it up. We are not the center of the universe and that we think we are will most likely be the end of us. Then nature will go on its way, with humans only being a faint ugly memory. And yes I am fond of animals or most of them.

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Deer and Stoplight.

Guernica: Some of your paintings are disturbingly funny. I heard Tom Waits say that you have an odd sense of humor, and one critic described Fishing with John as “Waiting for Godot” on water. I see some of that absurdist tradition in your paintings. What makes you laugh?

John Lurie: I don’t know how to answer that. Any formula to humor seems to ruin it.

I think humor is actually a very serious thing. I think the people who shaped culture, for the better, in the last 50 years or so, more than almost anyone else are people like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor and even Chris Rock, back when he was doing the edgier stuff.

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Piers Morgan walks into a bear.
The bear says, 'unfortunate typo.'
And eats him.

Guernica: Your painting, Bear Surprise, (or Preved) became an online sensation in Russia. Did you ever figure out how that happened? I wonder what the overlap was, between your painting and Russian cultural sensibilities that turned it into the phenomenon it is today.

John Lurie: That thing was more gigantic in Russia than you can imagine. There were 10 condom companies with my bear on the pack. There was an ATM machine – when you put your card in – my bear ran across the screen. During a soccer game, they would flash the bear on the scoreboard and 60,000 would jump up and yell “Preved!”

This goes on and on and copyright laws in Russia are not really enforced.

I asked many Russians what it was about. And you have to imagine a thick Russian accent here – “Medved is Russian for bear!”

I never really got an answer and I do not understand it. And that is a pretty awful painting. Somewhat intentionally so.

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Bear Surprise (Preved).

Guernica: You’re fairly active on social media, a platform that you often use to express your political opinions. Does politics influence your art?

John Lurie: God I hope not. I try to stay away from politics but then I get outraged.

Guernica: What makes you angry, and why do you try to stay away from politics?

John Lurie: When I was young, I was very political and then I just felt like fuck it, as long as they don’t mess too much with my life, I will do what I do. I can’t change things. I also had this moment where I was listening to Martin Luther King Jr speak and thought, it is the sound of him. It isn’t the words coming out of his mouth, it is the sound of him that is so pure and powerful and could possibly change things. So then music made more sense.

I don’t really stay away from politics but the bullshit just gets to be too much. Any political tweets I take down after an hour or so. They are met with such a wall of stupidity and anger, it is hardly worth it to leave it up.

Particularly, if you say anything about Hillary Clinton, the responses are just nuts – “YOU JUST FEAR SMART, STRONG WOMEN, MR. MAN.”

But there are 63 million refugees and people [saying,] “they may be terrorists, it isn’t safe to let them in to our country. They may rape our daughters!” The refugees are suffering horrendously. And these “patriots” claiming they are the bravest of all people, posing with their guns, are fearful of Muslims because they have never actually met a Muslim in their life and the idea that one in ten thousand might be a danger to them – (makes chicken sounds now).

57.6 million people voted in the US primaries. If you were looking at this planet from above and saw that almost 6 million more people were living in refugee camps than those who voted for the US president, you would have to think these creatures are pretty doomed.

Guernica: To me, art is inherently political, because it is essentially an exercise in bringing to life seemingly impossible worlds. It shows that it is possible to imagine the world in a different way. Do you think, in this political climate, art should mitigate social antagonisms, or do you think art should be for art’s sake?

John Lurie: There are young men in the desert cutting people’s heads off because they think it brings them closer to God.

There are people clamoring for the election of Trump because they hate anyone whose skin is a slight shade different than theirs. They are calling for the eradication of Islam and want to build a wall along an arbitrary line that keeps Mexicans out of the land they probably have more of a right to cross than the people who now somehow think they have a right to be there.

It seems like the next president is someone who gets her money from the NRA lobbyists, Goldman Sachs, the Saudis. Even though she admits Climate Change is a reality, she will not do anything about fracking or anything else, because the people who create all this are the people she is beholding to. I am sorry to say this but Hillary Clinton feels much more like Dick Cheney than Obama.

I was going to change and then I thought, “no, I am a painter now, I can wear what I am wearing.”

So to me it is this – it is – “I am a human being. I made this beautiful thing. With all this shit mounting higher and higher, I made this beautiful thing.”

Guernica: People assume that art has become what music once was for you. Were you always this passionate about painting?

John Lurie: No, that is exactly right. Once it was music and now it has switched to painting.

Guernica: What was that process like? Do you remember the moment you felt yourself tipping over into art?

John Lurie: There were several. In 2002 I got very ill with Lyme and besides going to doctors, I never left the house. My life became only about trying to figure out what was happening to me.

About a year into that I started to paint a little. I was just doing them for me. They had funny titles but weren’t anything like they are now.

About a year later, I started painting this row of elephants. Probably if I went back and found that painting I would cringe now, but there was this moment, where I felt this could really replace music if I work on it.

There was another moment a year or so later, I was in Amsterdam, painting in oils and ran out of a color. I was covered in paint and had to rush out to the art supplies store before they closed.

I was going to change and then I thought, “No, I am a painter now, I can wear what I am wearing.”

Guernica: What does music mean to you now?

John Lurie: This would be painful and somewhat complicated to answer.

Guernica: We were talking earlier about the similarities between your approach to painting, and how it resembles jazz-improvisation. So, you first create this mood that beckons your imagination, and then you hope you have enough skill to capture an idea when it is presented to you. Are there any linkages between the two mediums? I mean does music spill into your art? If so, how?

John Lurie: They are both building patterns and colors. You want the structure to be sound but also have magic in it. To leave room for the magic.

They are very similar in a way. But I remember when I first started playing music and was listening to Hendrix and saying to myself – no matter how technically proficient you get in music, you must see it as you see these colors now. You can’t lose that and see it as notes on a page.

Guernica: You have had such an illustrious and adventurous career, and its far from over. When you look back, what are the things you are proud of?

John Lurie: Oh, that is hard, and I think of all the stuff I didn’t do or haven’t gotten to do yet. Or the things I would like to fix. Several paintings, maybe about 20 or so, I think, yeah that is right on the money.

Songs: Flutter, First and Royal Queen, Small Car, Queen of All Ears, Wanna Wanna.

The Fishing Show – particularly Willem Dafoe and Tom Waits. But then how can I leave out Dennis Hopper?

But probably the best things I have done were the concerts and many in out-of-the-way places. But just that thing where the band has been on the road for a while and then starts hovering off the ground, all together.

John Lurie emerged onto the art scene in the spring of 2004, when he had his first painting exhibition at Anton Kern Gallery. Since then Lurie’s work has been exhibited in esteemed galleries throughout the world, including P.S.1. Contemporary Arts Center in New York, Musee Des Beaux-Arts De Montreal, the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, who gave their entire museum to the presentation of Lurie’s work. Both the Wadsorth Athenaeum in Connecticut and The Museum of Modern Art in New York have acquired his work for their permanent collections.

Prior to focusing on painting, Lurie led the band The Lounge Lizards, which went on to make music for 20 years. During this time, Lurie recorded 22 albums and composed scores for over 20 movies, including Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law, Mystery Train, and Get Shorty, which earned him a Grammy nomination. He wrote, directed and starred in the cult classic “Fishing with John,” a series that is now part of The Criterion Collection. Lurie is also responsible for the release of the music of the fictional Marvin Pontiac.

Farhad Mirza is a journalist, writer and researcher from Lahore, Pakistan. He wants to be a musician when he grows up. You can follow him on twitter @farhadmirza01.

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One comment for Farhad Mirza: Transfiguration and Magic

  1. Comment by a field mouse on July 29, 2016 at 10:12 am

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