Review: ‘Painting With John’ Teaches the Art of Living
The title of HBO’s “Painting With John” is a misnomer. Yes, it is being painted. And there is John – John Lurie, the multi-dash creator and performer who switched to the visual art of music and acting years ago after contracting Lyme disease.
But with “? In the six-episode series that starts Friday, you will see Lurie paint. You will hear him reflect on the painting and his life before it and whatever else comes to mind. If you do, too If you want to paint, that’s your reputation. But don’t get your hopes up. “Bob Ross was wrong,” says Lurie, taking care of a watercolor in the first episode. “Everyone can’t paint.”
Bob Ross is not. This is not a quarantine-friendly, relaxing tutorial on self-expression as self-care. (“None of the trees in my paintings are happy,” he says in another reference to the art teacher on public television. “They are all miserable.”)
“Painting With John” is a different kind of creation: a hypnotic, meandering surreality TV stroll into the gnarled jungle of Lurie’s mind exploring life as an art form in itself.
The series, which was written and staged by Lurie and set to music with his music, begins with a top view of the green of his Caribbean island. The viewer sails over the green canopy and comes closer, closer, too close, until the camera drone that Lurie controls hits a tree.
The opening is a metaphor for the series, which is partly a tutorial, partly an autobiographical video essay. You will learn a few things about Lurie and his creative process and maybe some glimpse into the beauty of creation, but it won’t be a straight flight or a smooth ride.
Painting is a kind of spiritual sequel to Fishing With John, Lurie’s bizarre outdoor show from 1991 (now available through the Criterion Collection). There the inexperienced angler Lurie went into the water with friends from the film and music world such as Jim Jarmusch and Tom Waits, when an expressionless narrator made absurd comments. (“How deep is the ocean? Nobody really knows.”) More vibrations were caught than fish.
“Painting” does not have the same parodic tone as “fishing”, perhaps because three decades later it cannot. In 1991, a year after “Twin Peaks” premiered, it might still seem like an amazing subversion that something as surreal and improbable as a hipster’s guide to downtown fishing could make it into the air.
In the streaming era where everyone gets a show, that seems entirely plausible. Just last year, HBO aired How To With John Wilson, a comic book DIY guide that turned out to be a fun but profound reflection on the pain of connection. Today a show like “Painting” can – must – unintentionally be what it is.
And who Lurie is has changed too, after all. In the 1980s and 1990s he was the founder of the art jazz band Lounge Lizards and star of indie films such as Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise”, an avatar of downtown New York cool, with a longstanding noir charisma and a Fedora trademark .
Now years after moving to his island, he’s a Grizzled Art Dude who trudges across the grounds with a Gandalf staff and a weathered intensity that he both possesses and mocks. “My polite smile scares people,” he says as he debates how to open the show, then grins to prove it. “Painting” doesn’t have the ironic distancing of “fishing”, but it can still laugh at itself.
There is an obvious story arc that “painting” could have followed: artist becomes famous, derailed from illness, finds new purpose in seclusion and a more meditative art form. The series follows this arc, but backwards. Only in the last episode does Lurie talk at length about the fact that she has to give up the performance and realizes that painting “can be what music is”.
Instead, he approaches the subject in a circle with a series of stories and memories of shaggy dogs. He remembers growing up with his brother Evan, who became his bandmate at Lounge Lizards. He recalls how difficult fame could be for his friend Anthony Bourdain. He is chasing a bird that has winged into his house.
He tells stories about the people he has met in his new home, tells personal theories – he doesn’t trust anyone without a full laugh – and gets lost in his memories. “We went to James Franco’s movie, Planet of the Apes, in which he had to cut his arm off to get away,” he says, then pauses. “Maybe I’ll mix up two films.”
Meanwhile, he paints and spreads tendrils of color, while the camera perceives his brushstrokes so precisely that you can see the pigment sink into the paper.
Lurie doesn’t teach painting. But he’s teaching something. Patience, purpose, attention to your inner voice. It may seem confusing or indulgent at times. But the digressions are the point. The show, which in six half-hour episodes doesn’t exceed its salute, is like teaching a quirky bohemian Yoda.
As for the painting itself, at the end of the season, Lurie seems to reconsider what he said in the first episode. Paint, he says. “You’ll stink in the beginning,” he adds, but that’s okay.
“Just put the paint on the paper and see what you have,” he says. “It’s really worth it. It’s better than watching TV. “If you look at something, you could make it worse.