Review: 'Painting With John' teaches the art of living

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Review: 'Painting With John' teaches the art of living
Artist and star of HBO's “Painting with John,” John Lurie, in New York, Jan. 14, 2021. His new series for HBO is a meditative and often joyful blend of painting and personal storytelling. But Bob Ross it isn’t. Erik Tanner/The New York Times.

by James Poniewozik

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The title of HBO’s “Painting With John” is a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there is painting. And there is John — John Lurie, the multihyphenate creator and performer who moved on to visual art from music and acting years ago after, he says, contracting Lyme disease.

But “with”? In the six-episode series, which begins Friday, you will watch Lurie paint. You will hear him ruminate about painting and his life before it, and whatever else crosses his mind. If you also want to paint, well, that’s your call. But don’t get your hopes up. “Bob Ross was wrong,” Lurie says, attending to a watercolor in the first episode. “Everybody can’t paint.”

Bob Ross this is not. This is no quarantine-friendly, relaxing tutorial about self-expression as self-care. (“None of the trees in my paintings are happy,” he says in another reference to the public-TV art instructor. “They’re all miserable.”)

“Painting With John” is another kind of creation altogether: a hypnotic, meandering, surreality-TV walk into the knotty jungle of Lurie’s mind that explores living as an art form in itself.

The series, written and directed by Lurie and soundtracked with his music, opens with an overhead shot of the greenery surrounding his Caribbean island home. The viewer sails above the verdant canopy, moving closer, closer, too close, until the camera drone that Lurie is piloting crashes into a tree.

The opening is a metaphor for the series, which is part tutorial, part autobiographical video essay. You will learn a few things about Lurie and his creative process, and you may gain some perspective on the beauty of creation, but it will not be a straight flight or a smooth ride.

“Painting” is a sort of spiritual successor to “Fishing With John,” Lurie’s bizarro outdoors show from 1991 (now available through the Criterion Collection). There, the nonexpert angler Lurie took to the water with film- and music-world friends like Jim Jarmusch and Tom Waits, as a deadpan narrator spun absurdist commentary. (“How deep is the ocean? Nobody really knows for sure.”) More vibes were caught than fish.

“Painting” does not have the same parodic tone as “Fishing” — maybe because, three decades later, it can’t. In 1991, a year after the premiere of “Twin Peaks,” it could still seem like an astonishing subversion that something so surreal and unlikely as a downtown hipster’s guide to fishing could make it on the air.

In the streaming, everyone-gets-a-show era, that would seem entirely plausible. Just last year, HBO aired “How To With John Wilson,” a comic do-it-yourself guide that revealed itself as a funny but profound reflection on the ache for connection. Today, a show like “Painting” can be — probably needs to be — unwinkingly what it is.

And who Lurie is, after all, has changed, too. In the 1980s and 1990s, as a founder of the art-jazz band the Lounge Lizards and a star of indie films like Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” he was an avatar of downtown New York cool, with a long-faced noir charisma and a trademark fedora.

Now, years after moving to his island home, he’s a grizzled art dude, stalking the grounds with a Gandalf staff and a weathered intensity that he both owns and mocks. “My polite smile frightens people,” he says as he debates how to open the show, then grins to prove it. “Painting” doesn’t have the ironic detachment of “Fishing,” but it can still laugh at itself.

There is an obvious story arc that “Painting” could have followed: Artist experiences celebrity, is derailed by illness, finds new purpose in seclusion and a more meditative art form. The series follows that arc, but backward. Only in the last episode does Lurie talk at length about having to give up performing, realizing that painting “could be what music was.”

Instead, he approaches the subject in circles, with a series of shaggy-dog stories and reminiscences. He recalls growing up with his brother, Evan, who became his bandmate in the Lounge Lizards. He remembers how difficult fame could be for his friend Anthony Bourdain. He chases a bird that’s winged its way into his house.

He spins stories about the people he’s met in his new home, relates personal theories — he doesn’t trust anyone without a full laugh — and gets a little lost in his memories. “We went to see that James Franco ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie where he has to cut off his own arm to get away,” he says, then stops himself. “Maybe I’m mixing up two movies.”

All the while, he paints, delicately spreading tendrils of color as the camera attends to his brush strokes so closely that you can see the pigment sink into the paper.

Lurie isn’t teaching painting. But he’s teaching something: patience, purpose, attentiveness to your inner voice. It may seem rambling or self-indulgent at times. But the digressions are the point. The show, which at six half-hour episodes does not overstay its welcome, is like an apprenticeship with a crotchety bohemian Yoda.

As for the painting itself, by the season’s end, Lurie seems to reconsider what he said in the first episode. Go ahead and paint, he says. “You’re gonna stink at the beginning,” he adds, but that’s fine.

“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.” Although if you’re going to watch something, you could do worse than this.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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