‘Painting With John’ Review: A Decidedly Mixed Palette
Thirty years ago John Lurie, the musician, composer, actor and epitome of “Downtown” New York – when “Downtown” meant something culturally specific – had a television series called “Fishing With John”. It disguised itself as a nature sports program with little noticeable effort, but it was really about Mr. Lurie and his “guests” who were his friends and co-workers: Jim Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe, Matt Dillon, Dennis Hopper. The show lasted six episodes, but gained cult following and is available in a Criterion Collection edition and on the Criterion Channel.
Mr. Lurie’s new show “Painting With John” is an entirely different type of show – part one-man chat show, part art class – albeit with a similar attitude towards TV genres. Talking into a camera like it’s a real person? He asks. It’s so artificial. It’s so wrong “People who are actually good at it?” he says in episode 3. “You’re probably a sociopath.” In fact, he says the more shows he’s done on the show, the better he got at it and “the worse and worse I’ve gotten”.
It’s clear that the six-episode season isn’t meant to seduce audiences with warmth and fuzziness, but the pace, carefree, music (Mr. Lurie’s), and surprising vibrancy of the colors and artwork make for a show that a Viewers sincere, even if it is a parody: the first episode is called “Bob Ross Was Wrong” (which means “Anyone Can’t Paint”). And although Mr Lurie says he wanted the show to be “educational”, is he an intuitive painter and how can you teach intuition?
It’s the kind of question that makes him tell stories – about his parents, for example, and how they never suppressed the creative impulses from him or his brother and fellow musician Evan, who would take on a character like Rin-Tin as a young child – Tin and “demand that his dinner be served in a bowl on the floor.” You never insulted him, you just played along. (“Rin-Tin-Tin! It’s time for dinner!”) In a way, Mr. Lurie turns a show whose sensitivity is casual into something instructive, without pedantry or technical expertise: every episode starts with Mr. Lurie rushing turns off his drone (or seven at one point) for an introductory overview of the unknown Caribbean island he calls home. At some point he asks why he’s doing the show in the first place. “Indeed, if you’re watching, turn it off.” I couldn’t commit.
The show has three main elements: island scenery; Mr. Lurie’s stories; and his various works in progress – paintings that combine mosaic-like fragments from oil or watercolor and suggest Gustav Klimt with the delicate flora of a Japanese landscape from the Edo period. The act of painting absorbs in its delicacy; The programs in their entirety are haiku-like – short, seemingly spontaneous, but actually precisely structured. (It’s a one-man show, save for the occasional appearances by Nesrin Wolf and Ann Mary Gludd Jones, who work for, and maybe live with, Mr. Lurie.)