John Lurie’s new television series, Painting with John, opens up art to its raw experience. By Joseph Earp.

Painting with John

A balding man with a beard paints at a table.
John Lurie in a scene from season one of Painting with John.
Credit: Binge / HBO

At first glance, it would be hard to describe John Lurie’s HBO series Painting with John as “instructional”. That, after all, is the format Lurie is gently ribbing, like an aimless anti-Bob Ross. Episodes heavily feature Lurie hunched over his desk applying colour to the abstract, vaguely comic watercolours that have established him as a serious artist, in addition to his other talents as a musician and actor – you might know him from his work with drawling film director Jim Jarmusch or as the frenetic frontman of the band The Lounge Lizards.

He talks to you as he paints, but he gives neither artistic nor life advice in the conventional sense. The camera rolls. Lurie speaks. He wanders around his house. We watch the paintings emerge. You could paint alongside Lurie if you liked, but you’d be on your own, as likely to receive anecdotes about New York restaurants or the broken toys that he keeps stuck on his fridge as advice on perspective or colour theory. At times Lurie actively mocks the idea that there is some central educational message to his show. In the first episode he gazes over a sunset, and asks you to provide the existential musings to accompany it.

Tonally, Painting with John is an extension of Lurie’s last real foray into television, Fishing with John. Just as that show was as much about Lurie’s famous friends failing to catch fish, Painting with John is about Lurie failing to explain how to make art. Even when he talks through the thought process behind his work, it’s with a firmly arched eyebrow. The trees in his paintings are always tormented, he tells us, while painting a particularly serene-looking elm.

Yet a thesis does emerge from this slacker perspective, one that stands in relieving contrast to the way art gets made and talked about in the dawning age of artificial intelligence. Early on in the show, Lurie commends the art that children make. He tells us he’s seen better masterpieces pinned to friends’ fridges than in most galleries. We all know how to paint, Lurie says, but somewhere along the way that confidence gets beaten out of us, eroded by theory and self-judgement and the elitism of the art world.

What Lurie is offering is a reset in our appreciation of art that takes us away from heavy-handed interpretations. Lurie’s benchmark of a successful artwork isn’t a puzzle box you break open to find the one “true” interpretation. Nobody looks at a child’s drawing and decides it has a clear thematic thrust or that it tells us, in grandiose terms, about the world we live in now.

Nor is Lurie’s ideal artwork a piece of technical accomplishment, grounded in realism. Why would we want a painting to do what a photograph does when we have photographs? We hear in what he says, and see in what he does, an image-first view of art. What matters is the painting, not the themes that have brought it to life, not some arbitrary sense of how much it reflects the real world. We respond to the image, not through it or around it.

One of Lurie’s most astonishing paintings is titled The other side of The Great Wall of Fuck. Awash in yellows and greens, it features a few blotted flowers and what seems to be a figure standing in the corner, watching them. Study it closely and you will not unpack some devastating cultural critique. You will not see the world as it looks when you move your gaze away from the paintings. You will see an image. The painting will work for you or it won’t, based on that image. You will not be able to argue with it, as you might in a university classroom. You will not be able to test it against technical metrics. It is, as Lurie suggests in his remarks about the art of children, necessarily simple. And it is like a joke – you’ll laugh, or you won’t.

This also positions Lurie in opposition to AI. This tool, which is increasingly flooding our social media time lines, has no goal but a particularly narrow-minded version of “beauty”. The mark of a “successful” AI artwork tends to be that it appears close to what our real life looks like – that it renders our faces strikingly or imagines set-ups we have told it to imagine precisely.

The tech bros and self-professed innovators who tool around with these systems herald it as the future. AI can work faster than any artist – as long as you don’t ask it to render somebody’s hands – and much more cheaply. Now you don’t have to go to one of those money-grubbing artists to get a painting of yourself decked out in sci-fi furnishings. A robot will do it for you free.

But where is the history to an AI artwork? Where is the sense of play, of freedom, of exploration? A robot does not bring its personality to a painting in the way we see Lurie, with his grey beard, bring his entire life to each of his watercolour daubs; there is no personality to be brought. Every stroke John Lurie makes is a John Lurie stroke. No robot will ever have that. And no robot will ever be able to make a mistake. It does what it is told to do.

Mistakes are part of Lurie’s process. We see that time and time again in Painting with John, as he lets the colour go where it wants to go, lets forms bleed and run out of precision and into something more special. Into art.

You could, of course, run a bunch of John Lurie paintings into an AI system and spit out a replica of his work. The way AI is going, you could run every episode of Painting with John into AI and get it to spit out its own season. Undoubtedly the finished product would resemble Lurie’s work and approximate his rhythms and his beats. The question is not whether this can be done. The question is why any of us would care.

When we respond to Lurie’s paintings or to the sight of the man gazing over his balcony at a sunset he does not have the words to describe, we are responding to the thing itself. We are not experiencing awe at the process of a machine. Nor are we searching for analysis. We let the thing be. That, after all, might be why Lurie hands it to us to talk about the sunset. Not because we’ll be able to and he can’t, but maybe, thrillingly, because there’s actually nothing to say. 

Painting with John is streaming on Binge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Painting without numbers".

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