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Dishing With John

John Lurie's show of paintings at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery occasioned the following interview in New York Press, which reveals him to be a low key, dryly caustic, self deprecating satirist, a mordantly droll observer of foibles and egos, the same fierce yet gentle iconoclast we have known and admired since the 1970s. Interspersed with the interview are images from his current show taken from the gallery website, and of course their very determinative titles.

Already an accomplished artist, actor, musician, composer, director and cult television master, one wonders what’s left for John Lurie to do. He seems to indicate as much by opening the door to his Soho loft on a damp Monday night wearing an open dress shirt that exposes his bare chest. He’s just finishing dinner—a straight steak, no side, plus a glass of whiskey—yet looks like a man who has worked too much, received too little recognition and is ready to air out the posers who’ve taken over the City he used to run.

A new series of Lurie’s paintings, The Skeleton In My Closet Has Moved Back Out To The Garden, opened this month at Fredericks & Freiser gallery in Chelsea. The show finds the artist perfecting his technique. It’s also funny as hell. The show closes November 7, so get a move on.

Everyone Found Bernard’s Lascivious Nature Disgusting. So He Bought a Bird, Who Also Found Him Disgusting, 2009

Lurie came up in the now iconic era when most Downtown heroes were born. His group, the Lounge Lizards, premiered in 1978 at a coked-out experiment of a gig and spent the 1980s attempting to reclaim jazz from the while-you-eat restaurant and wildly indulgent loft scenes. Jim Jarmusch, a cinematic collaborator at the time, gave him lead roles in Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, which soon became late 20th-century classics. In retrospect, however, Lurie wasn’t so into where things were headed. He just wanted to play his saxophone.

You Have the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness. Good Luck With That. You Have the Right to Bear Arms, 2009

“It was really unfortunate to become known as a fucking movie star,” Lurie recalls. “I was trying to play jazz and I was white, and now I’m a movie star! Acting is like being a puppet. There’s a one-in-a-million shot that you get to be Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. It’s very rare that it’s a creative thing. It’s a career. It’s very good for getting laid. It’s never a creative endeavor. The bigger it gets, the worse it gets. I hate those Jarmusch movies for a million reasons. I could write a book.”

While Lurie pressed on with acting (see Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and Lynch’s Wild at Heart, amongst other character roles), he mostly honed in on creating music that pushed his trademark deadpan aesthetics and played with trance-inducing repetition. With 1989’s Voice of Chunk, he layered highlife African influences on top of Terry Riley-esque jazz and features guitar contributions from Marc Ribot. For Jarmusch’s early films, Fishing With John and African Swim, Lurie’s soundtrack compositions dot his canon with resolute spirituality.

In This Painting the Artist's Soul Has Been Corroded By Assholism. I Think You Know Who You Are, 2008

Unfortunately, as Lurie’s cult following grew, the music industry ensured he would never rise to the surface. In 1996, the Lounge Lizards made a record called The Queen of all Ears that was supposed to come out on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records but suffered from the label’s fears about its commercial potential because of low sales projections.

“They get to me to put my own money up for this record,” says Lurie. “They’re calling and saying things like, 'Do you want to be known for acting or music, because we’re gonna make sure you’re known for music.’ So I’m paying for the record and they book me on this tour where I lose $10,000 a week. Then I find out that Byrne’s only printing 3,000 copies. And when my lawyer calls and yells at him, he hides under a couch. Meanwhile, they got the masters and I’m out $140,000. I’m a little pissed off.”

After some negotiation, Lurie obtained the rights to The Queens of all Ears and put it out on his own by starting an imprint called Strange and Beautiful. Having his own label was a great way to avoid the manipulation of the music industry, but it also provided the platform to showcase his art—a lifelong pursuit that Lurie held back in the booming ’80s because he felt it would be too garish to cash-in with peers like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel when he was already known in other mediums.

The Old Man Finally Decided to Tell the Story of the Irritating Horse, 2009

“I recently had this show in Montréal,” Lurie recounts. “They took me into the rest of the museum and there was a room with all artists from the last 30 years. It was all guys I knew: George Condo, Clemente and Schnabel and Basquiat… You know, I felt somewhat insecure about my paintings, and then I look around and my chest came flying out. It was like, not only is my technique solid, but it’s more real, funnier and more original. I’m the fucking shit. Fuck all those people. Then I went to the rest of the museum and realized that none of us have any real weight at all. I see a Brueghel and I know that that’s what I need to strive for. I couldn’t believe I was showing my work. I was such a piece of shit. Maybe I’m better than those assholes, but I’m a little phony.”

I Need to Know If There Is Life After Death and I Need to Know Kind of Soon, 2007

Phoniness is the last thing that a viewer would perceive when dealing with Lurie’s art. In the late 1990s, he was diagnosed with what doctors believe to be advanced Lyme disease. His brain became too fogged to tour or act. His body became too weak to play saxophone. He all but disappeared into a reclusive life that consisted of wallowing in his loft (which Grammy-nominated soundtrack work for the otherwise forgettable Get Shorty paid for). Painting was the perfect solo refuge and gave Lurie a conduit to demonstrate the highly personal pain and confusion consequent of his crippling disease.

The Spirits Are Trying to Tell Me Something, but It's Really Fucking Vague, 2008

Lurie’s artwork—like his music or incredible cult television series Fishing With John—merges deadpan humor with the sublime. Watercolors leak and fuzz into psychedelic textures. Crass sexuality and religion are both rampant. One painting depicts a lone sailor fighting waves at sea with a floating crucifix in the distance. It’s a beautiful image made hilarious by its title: “Harry Didn’t Want to Say Anything, but the Appearance of Jesus Was Ruining His Vacation.” Lurie’s original show at Anton Kern Gallery sold out within its first hour, and a retrospective at PS1 remains the only museum show I’ve witnessed where viewers were keeling over in laughter.

“The show is all new work on clayboards and canvases,” he explains. “It’s mostly stuff I did in the last year in Big Sur, Turkey and my loft. It’s mostly singular pieces. I wanted to call the show: You Have The Right To Bear Arms and make all paintings that had characters with the arms of a bear. I pulled back because anytime you start with a concept like that it just comes out contrived.”

Now logging an impressive body of art, Lurie still radiates the kind of pure creativity that’s all too rare. His physical condition is improving from ozone therapy and he hopes to one day pick up his saxophone and return to music for a swansong.

The Skeleton in My Closet Has Moved Back Out to the Garden, 2009

“If I got well enough to play again, I would go by Astor Place where that cube is. If you go a little bit West between those buildings, a saxophone sounds amazing there. I would go there and play every night at 6 o’clock. That’s the way to go. The music business is just so fucking creepy. I can’t have anything to do with it anymore. I think that 6pm everyday is a beautiful thing. It’s consistent.”

I Am Thankful For My Skeleton. He Is Still in the Garden, 2009

The Skeleton In My Closet Has Moved Back Out To The Garden at Fredericks & Freiser, 536 W. 24th Street, 212-633-6555, through November 7, 2009