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Art is John Lurie

INTERVIEW. The former Lounge Lizard exhibits in Berlin's Martin Martens gallery and gives us a glimpse at his lesser known craft, painting, through Apr 29. Don't miss!

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Deer and Stoplight. Courtesy of strangeandbeautiful.com

The colors are translucent. The green of the garden resembles a fresh spring morning. You could as well imagine Jesus walking into a garden like that. “Jesus Was in My Garden Once” is one of the paintings on display at John Lurie’s first Berlin solo-exhibition.

John Lurie started his artistic career as a musician in the late 1970 when he revolutionized the idea of jazz, transforming it into a new genre with his group, The Lounge Lizards.  Also known for his appearances in Jim Jarmush films during the 1980s, he simultaneously created the scores for them (Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law). Later films featuring his music are Get Shorty and the beautiful indie film Manny and Lo, starring a very young Scarlett Johannson. John also went fishing with indie heroes such as Tom Waits and Willem Dafoe for the TV show Fishing With John and created the virtual blues musician Marvin Pontiac, an alter ego, published on an album of the same title.

It was the cover of the last Lounge Lizards album, “Queen of All Ears” (1998), that really put his painting in the public eye. Facing the side effects of a chronic illness which made playing the saxophone and especially live concerts impossible, the genre of painting evolved into a new path of artistic expression, much to our pleasure.

The Berlin exhibition features large and smaller-sized prints from the last seven years. The topics range from dealing with mortality to humorous ways of looking at a good portion of anger (“This Was the Exact Moment Marge Decided to Kill Her Husband”). “The Judge Was Hypnotized by Alcohol” shows a person with a head like a poisoned alien, you wouldn’t want a judge like that to take care of your case! “Deer and Stoplight” is reminiscent of Asian watercolors; the deer on the lower right standing paralyzed by a red stoplight at the upper left corner.

John Lurie’s paintings are genuine and honest and therefore beautiful, much like the music. There are rumors that people at the MoMA PS1 exhibition were laughing so hard about the titles that he thought about changing them so as not to distract too much from the art itself. Apart from the humor however, the technique itself has been rapidly developing and, looking at the paintings, the viewers can lose themselves within the story they tell.

Cornelia Brelowski spoke with Lurie through email on April 14.

Hello John, and thanks for accepting this interview – how are you? I would like to ask you about the currently exhibited work in Berlin first. The exhibition shows large prints and some smaller originals (at least one of which has been sold already). Do you usually work in a rather small format?

It depends on where I am and how I am set up. Lately I have been doing mostly works on paper that are not big, 3×4 feet being the largest. I also have one larger clayboard going that I hope to finish in the next few days.

What technique did you use? The exhibited work looks like a mixture of watercolor, oil and more?

I do works on paper in watercolor, sometimes in ink. I sometimes use oil pastels with these works.

I also do clayboards – which I am afraid you will ask me what clayboards are – and I don’t know. I bought one at an art store several years ago and liked it, so I kept using it. And I do oil on linen. But I am not set up to do that right now and I wish I were.

Clayboard – a board with a clay base? Sounds interesting. My favourite of the Berlin exhibition is “Deer and Spotlight”. Does this painting stand for a specific moment in your life when you felt paralyzed by specific circumstances?

No, it has nothing to do with being paralyzed. It is just about the color. I painted that and it did not seem done – it needed something in that corner with a spark of color. So I added the stop light.

More about the idea of silliness that a deer would stop in the woods and wait for a stop light.

Can you sit down and paint whenever you feel like it or do you need a lot of time before you start – for musing on content, structures and form? What triggers the basic idea for a painting?

Yes, I can paint whenever I feel like it because what triggers the paintings is color. I have an idea of a palette and go from there.

Where do you see the major part of inspiration coming from at the moment? And do you sometimes paint to music?

No, I have Advanced Lyme Disease which makes me unable to play music any more. Also for a long time, I couldn’t even listen to music because of what it did neurologically, but that is actually much better now. But mostly the sense of loss is just enormously painful, so I rarely listen.

“Where does inspiration come from?”, I find to be a very odd question.

I mean with this question, are there any artists that inspire you most at the moment? You mentioned [German painter Paul] Klee once in an interview…

It doesnt work like that for me. When I was 11, I bought my mother this little print of a Paul Klee painting. She said, “Oh, that is Paul Klee, you have good taste.” So that stuck with me. Then years later, actually wasn’t so much later, I was 17, funny how it works with time when you are young, but anyway, I was visiting Steve Piccolo at Bard College and there was a Klee painting on the wall in his room. I couldn’t see it. We took magic mushrooms and went out and were fascinated by how red the apples were. When we got back to the room I looked at the Klee and went – oh! I can see it now.

But it never works like that. That I would look at another painting to get an idea.

In any case, the Paul Klee thing is from something that I studied when I was very young. So it was deep in there, then it sort of pops up from time to time when I am working. But I really see the creative process as something that comes from deep inside and not from the outside world. Sometimes, the best things seem to exist in the air already and if your antennae is up, you can pluck them out of the sky.

A connection of the inner world and the “Ursuppe” as it’s called in German? Meaning the basic “soup” we are all part of?


The MoMA has purchased some of your work. Did that come automatically with your exhibition at PS1? What do you think about the selection they made?

No, MoMA purchased those pieces a couple of years before PS1 happened. They are very early pieces and perhaps not the best.

You knew artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and you met Warhol and the like. What do you think is the most significant difference between the art scene back then compared to today’s art scene?

I don’t understand today’s art scene at all. I must be missing something. But it seems to me like the idea is: this elevator music is important because it makes a witty reference to another piece of elevator music.

You say you are working on a clayboard painting right now. In an interview from January I saw a picture of what looked almost like a sculpture of a fish skeleton in a frame? Is more like that on the way or was that an excursion of some sort?

Ah yes – it’s called “Bones are on the Outside”. And yes – that is a clayboard. That was a bit of a happy accident. I was frustrated with it and threw a bucket of water on it and what happened was pretty great.

Maybe I should throw water on all of them.

John Lurie | Through April 29

John Lurie online | johnlurieart.tumblr.com, www.strangeandbeautiful.com