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An interview
with John Lurie
by David Coggins
John Lurie has succeeded in enough creative endeavors -- film, music, composing -- that it comes as no surprise that his painting career has attracted critical and commercial attention. After an initial exhibition of his mordant cartoon-like drawings at Anton Kern in 2004, heís shown in museums from Luxembourgís MUDAM to P.S.1 in Long Island City. Lurie took up painting after he came down with a neurological disease, which forced him to give up playing the saxophone.

Lurieís current show at Fredericks & Freiser gallery in Chelsea, titled "The Skeleton in My Closet Has Moved Back to the Garden," contains 22 paintings, deceptively simple portraits of animals and figures set in a verdant landscape, and marked with humorous titles. We met last week at his New York apartment and discussed his new show over a few glasses of Scotch.

David Coggins: I was in the gallery today while your show was being installed. Whatís it like seeing the work in the gallery after working on it in the studio?

John Lurie: The 2005 show at Roebling Hall was all on paper, there was a lot of work in there. It was too colorful. It was embarrassing. Each work by itself was okay but seeing them all together -- I was horrified. Iíve been going away from that. This show is more subtle. I was surprised how far it had gone the other way.

DC: When you organize a show do you think of it in terms of a body of work, or do you just make work and show what youíve finished?

JL: I just make paintings and periodically choose a selection that works.

DC: Your first show was five years ago at Anton Kern Gallery. People knew you for other things. What was it like showing your paintings for the first time?

JL: That was weird. That was the beginning of the time when I had gotten ill and disappeared, so nobody had seen me for two years. That was the first time I had seen people, so it was weird on a social level. It was in this tiny room in the back and all the drawings were crammed into an 8 x 10í space. That was the funniest work. They were funnier than they were good.

DC: Can you talk about having a public persona and then making artwork? People already have ideas about you.

JL: Thatís very strange. The man who arranged the show at Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal in 2007, he didnít know who I was. In the art world, my stuff has actually gone further with people who had no idea who I was before. Having some other identity taints it for some people. They assume an actor or musician is not going to be a good painter. And people donít want you to be good at more than one thing. And all the painters -- especially the failed ones -- they really hate you. I thought after the P.S.1 show people would stop saying "he got this through his famous friends." But I guess people are going to say that forever.

DC: Do you think your work plays off your comic persona? Sometimes audiences are uneasy with humor.

JL: I had the same problem with music, where the music was incredibly serious, but there were funny parts. But it was complicated. The guys who played with me had to be able to play classical music, be able to play jazz, know rock Ďní roll and African music, they had to be accomplished on their instruments and yet they had to play them like they just found them on the street. Then we would play for 40 minutes and then I would tell jokes. And people would be in hysterics. And the jazz people would be like "this canít be serious, heís telling jokes and he tells them so well that the music canít be as good as we think it might be." With the paintings itís the same thing: humor is part of the whole deal.

DC: Do you think youíre ever going to adapt to the art world?

JL: Iím going to do what I do. I just do the stuff and stay as far as I can from that. I was in the music business, I was in Hollywood. I dealt with enough of this shit. Itís capricious.

DC: More than the music industry?

JL: Yes. In music you have your A&R guy, you have the guy setting up your tour, and you know theyíre the enemy. Thereís no question -- itís not like theyíre your friend and theyíre sticking by you. All you want to do is make sure you get paid and protect the music from them ruining it. With film-score composing, if I was a little more diplomatic I probably could have had a career. But I couldnít do it.

I like [Frederick & Freiser] and the people who work there. But so far, in my experience, dealers have been mostly. . . . I want to paint, I want to show, I want to make money, I want the works to be appreciated, but I just canít handle any more ass-hole-ism.

DC: That word is in one of your titles.

JL: It had names too but I took them out.

DC: How do you characterize your work and how would you like it to be seen?

JL: Itís the same as the music in some ways. Certainly thereís an accomplished technique going on but Iím almost trying to hide it. The idea is a broken, naÔve, childlike thing.

DC: There is a childlike quality to the figures -- birds and animals and simple figures. How do you arrive at your content?

JL: I donít know. It just floats in.

DC: How do you know when a work is finished?

JL: It just goes click at the end.

DC: Do you work from sketches?

JL: Every time I do that itís a disaster.

DC: In general, when you plan something it doesnít work out?

JL: It never works. In music, too. Though in music itís funny because the best thing happens first. That moment that something passes from God to your brain to the saxophone to the tape recorder. Thatís usually the best thing. With painting you try to set it up so that moment can happen later. You want to have the technique that can fly it through the mistake. Like in this painting I made the man too small. If I knew what I was doing the painting would have been great. But I donít know what Iím doing.

DC: So you try to take advantage of that quality of unknowing.

JL: Yes. The defects are part of it. It makes it charming somehow. Itís like when you hear somebody speaking English and itís not their first language. But theyíre smart and theyíre inventive and then theyíve made a new phrase.

DC: Some of the work has text -- they feel more like comic panels. How do you use text in your work?

JL: Iím moving more away from that. Some of the titles are really important. I used to write the titles right on the work if they were super-important. The title is still open enough that it doesnít nail you in.

DC: Your titles are quite elaborate -- You have the right to the pursuit of happiness good luck with that. Thatís not exactly like Composition in Green.

JL: This show was going to be entitled "You Have the Right to Bear Arms." They were all going to be paintings of people with bear arms. Whenever I start out with an idea of what Iím going to do before I do it, it always comes out contrived. The best stuff comes out when I fuck around and follow my intuition and it falls into place. I really was going to do a whole series of paintings with bear arms.

DC: This show is on panels and wood -- the earlier work was on paper. Is your process different?

JL: Oil on linen takes forever. With the work on paper I could use the accidents more. With the oils you have to know what you want and follow up.

DC: Does that mean this show is less spontaneous?

JL: No. This first batch I did in Big Sur, and theyíre a little stiff. At first I was afraid of that, but it just took me a minute to get past it. I made 20 in Turkey and 10 in Big Sur. Then you put it in the room and see what works. Youíve got 20 paintings in a room -- itís kind of like youíre making a new painting.

DC: Going back to the text, for a moment. Do you use text as a form of guidance for the audience?

JL: I donít think about how other people are going to see them until I get them to the gallery. And thank God for that that. Thatís really a good thing. Itís like with music and 900 people would rush into the dressing room and say "thatís great" and I would know it was horrible. Or I would know it was great and nobody would say anything. And I wouldnít care. With painting, I know which ones are good and I donít care anymore.

DC: How do you feel about crossing disciplines? Do you think more people should do it or is it something to be done carefully?

JL: For me, the germ of it is the same thing. For me, the fishing show [Fishing with John, 1992] is exactly the same as the paintings. Film scoring is a little different because itís more of a job. Itís like you have to learn how it works together. You just have to learn it. I donít know why people arenít better at more things. Like Henry Miller, I love his writing but I was very disappointed in his paintings.

DC: Do you think that your success encourages resistance towards your work?

JL: The art world is jealous of celebrity though itís enthralled by it. Is that not true? I just want to do whatís real. If it makes people hate me then Iíll go hide somewhere. I just want to do whatís real, and whatís beautiful, and whatís life affirming. Thatís all I care about.

DC: A catalogue essay compares your work to Thelonious Monk in that it "exploits the seemingly wrong note."

JL: I took that as a huge compliment. Iím stubborn, Iím obstinate. I will challenge any axiom. Somebody told me I couldnít use gold. I made only gold paintings for two weeks. Iím an asshole in that way. You do the wrong note enough and it falls into place.

John Lurie, "The Skeleton in my Closet Has Moved back out to the Garden," Oct. 10-Nov. 7, 2009, at Fredericks & Freiser, 536 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011

DAVID COGGINS is a New York writer and critic.