I Am Trying to Think. Please Be Quiet
John Lurie in conversation with Stanisław Welbel and Karolina Sulich
The theme of this issue is the relationship between art and music. We start with an interview with John Lurie – an excellent American musician who, in 2015, we also got to know as a painter.
John, over the last 12 years you have turned from music to painting. Do you think these two mediums somehow relate to each other? Does your musical background in jazz and improvised music effect the visual language you use in your painting practice?
I am sure they relate on several levels, but I am not sure how to explain it. If I had not played music, it would have taken me longer to get to the core of what I am doing in painting. A way of discerning what is real in the work. It can also give one the ability to be more daring. Not to be afraid to have a sense of play and to approach a painting with a kind of controlled abandon. And in the way I sometimes work with watercolour, using a lot of water and very random things happen, because I played improvised music for so long and had become adept at capturing something in the moment, it made me more able to catch things on the fly.
What is your visual arts background? Did you have any formal art education?
I have no formal education. My mother was an artist and taught art at a university. I think she came away from teaching with the opinion that teaching art was almost a mistake. That in most cases it squashes the budding creativity that is trying to find a way out. Though I am sure that very much depends on the teacher. But somehow my mother instilled in me the confidence to work on the paintings as I did as a child and to keep doing that. So that hopefully there is still the same spirit now as there was in the ones taped to the refrigerator fifty years ago.
But you have been drawing and doodling long before you decided to focus mostly on visual art due to your advanced case of Lyme disease. Do you remember how it all started?
Like most people I started when I was two. I just never stopped. I became very ill with Advanced Lyme in 2002 and was trapped in my apartment for years. So I started painting again. But it took a couple of years, actually it was more like four years, before the painting began to be what the music had once been.
How would you describe your style? Do you consider any artists particularly influential for your work?
I don’t know, I am almost suspicious of an artist who is good at describing their work, like they are good at writing proposals and thus their work lacks the thing that is most important. Lately, I have been looking at a lot of medieval painters, not for the technique which is often awful but for the subject matter that is incredibly creative and quite nuts. Then you come to Bosch who has technique better than almost anyone. I have studied many different painters over the years, going back to when I was quite young. I suppose the easiest way to explain it is that one painting might owe as much to Pollock as it does to Bruegel.
At the exhibition, we only show newer works. Do you have you older works? What do you think about them now?
A lot of my older stuff has been ruined in one way or another, I had a flood in my apartment, there was work stored at my old office that was really badly handled and a long time ago, I was part of a show in Germany of musicians who paint and the work was returned with non-archival tape that ended up ruining the pieces — so there isn’t so much left of it.
But to be honest, though it has something, the older work pales in comparison to the later stuff.
I would also like to ask about your film experience. You were very active in the 1980s in independent cinema circles. You composed soundtracks and also directed yourself. Is this of any reference for your paintings? Is it a source of inspirations, stories or anecdotes?
No, not really at all.
John, you prepared a soundtrack for the show. Could you say more about the selection of tunes?
I hope this works. I don’t think it is going to be perfect, but the idea is to create a world to see the paintings in.
Because of how we are doing this, I am not going to be able to oversee it to the end and I am a little worried about how the actual sound will be in museum headphones.
But I tried to pick music that was congruous with the paintings. Music that floated a bit and wasn’t too raucous or rhythmic.
I would like it seen as something subliminal rather than a presentation of the art and music together.
Could you tell more about the titles of your works? They have a very special kind of humour.
The titles come very late in the painting. Like usually when I am almost done. Any time I have come up with the title in advance, the painting seems to lose something and come out a bit contrived. I am a little disappointed sometimes that people just don’t seem able to see the paintings but latch onto the titles. Though that is far less disappointing than when people see the paintings and go, ‘oh, I remember him from the movies’.
How do you come up with the ideas? I notice some recurring motifs . . .
I get asked this question often in interviews and it completely baffles me. ‘Where do ideas come from?’ I put some paint down, see what I have and move forward from there.
John, you work with different painting techniques. How does it affect both the painting itself and your painting process?
Oh, it is incredibly different. Watercolour has a thing where what happens with the paint is something I try to follow. It comes up with patterns you could never imagine in advance and then I try to be true to what has happened.
Yet, with watercolour it is very difficult to not make mud. If you add a layer on top of something, you can just make a hideous mess.
Oil, you can fix the mistakes easier. You can do more what you had in mind in the first place, but it doesn’t give you those magical, chaotic things like watercolours do.
Your works on paper often have some Japanese or Asian touch. Are you particularly interested in this art tradition? Does this indicate that for you the marks on your painting are for real? Or have you made them up?
No, I am not particularly interested in that. I presume you mean some of the watercolours, but it is really that I am fascinated in how the water flows on the paper and gives you something you could never have come up with on your own. The marks may mean something, but I don’t know what.
I was also wondering about the characters that you depict?
They just seem to show up.
I have an impression that you make a very strong division between your visual art and musical and film career. You said even that it is disappointing when people connect it. Why?
Man, that is not what I said at all.
If someone is looking at a painting and says: ‘Oh, that is the guy in the movies.’ I would think that it was obvious as to why that would be bothersome, but I guess, not judging from your follow up question. If someone looks at a Van Gogh and all they think is ‘that is the guy who cut off his ear’. I think that is horrible, but of course that is what many people think.
I think there is a strong connection between the music and the paintings but don’t know how to actually explain it.
What is painting for you? Sometimes your works seem to be very personal, sometimes ironical but sometimes political . . . What are the topics, problems or questions that you address or are inspired by?
Are there really people who can answer a question like this? ‘What is painting for you?’ Because I can’t.
You basically live most of the time on a small Caribbean island but also have a studio in NYC. Where do you prefer to work? How does living close to nature affects your painting?
You know honestly, it doesn’t seem to make any difference at all. People don’t seem to want to believe that but when we send a few months work in to be scanned, it really is impossible to tell which ones were done in NY and which in other places.
Of course, in the Caribbean there are many more things to see and so one makes note of it — how this branch looks against this branch, how many different colours a flower has in a petal. But it really doesn’t change the content or subject matter of the paintings. They much more come from within.
As a young man, according to Wikipedia you were 22 when you moved to New York, you used to play on the streets of the city, in clubs and thus have been strongly connected to the underground scene of those times. You are described as an ‘Ambassador of New York cool’. What are your impressions or memories from that period?
How do I answer this without writing a rather long book?