[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
I don’t envy the person who has to write the episode descriptions for “Painting with John.” It is true that “John recounts how the obsession he and his brother had for John Coltrane’s ‘Live at Birdland’ resulted in an unfortunate Sunday breakfast” is an accurate statement about the contents of the third episode. But a few words summarizing a couple distinct anecdotes from the life of John Lurie is a drop in the lake of things that give this show its value.
Whether you know Lurie as an actor or a musician or a painter, “Painting with John” almost works best if you’re unaware of his other work or can pretend he’s some mystical forest-bound sage dispensing ideas about the nature of creativity to anyone who’ll listen.
There’s no set format for the show. Some episodes are more zeroed in on the new watercolors that Lurie is painting in his home studio. Others spend more time following him as he wanders around the surrounding plants, making his own brand of experimental home movies that feature him waddling around as an elephant or watching an old tire roll hop down a hill or talking to the moon.
The show seesaws between the absurd and the sublime, making the case for the power of art one minute and then gleefully flipping that idea the next. There’s a throughline of Lurie struggling to make sense of fame, whether it’s his or that of other notable TV painters or other industry folks blessed (or cursed) with being telegenic. He stares right down the camera barrel, not one to suffer inauthenticity but also very willing to puncture his own image. (The ongoing pile of drones sacrificed in the name of an opening sequence is maybe the biggest hint.)
Lurie’s unpredictability here isn’t that of a chaotic loose cannon. He’s funneling that intensity into his paintings, leading to works that grab your attention in the same ways his stories and musings do. Their titles (“Bobo didn’t believe in evolution so God turned him into a flower”) hint at how much he’s able to wink at the entire exercise, even as you see the care that goes into crafting these six episodes and the acts of creation on display.
As writer and director, he also knows how to keep this from being a pure indulgence. Even when DP Erik Mockus is capturing Lurie’s brush at work, there’s usually a tiny hint of a push-in, the sense that this is always more than just watching one man ply his skill. He’s only so much in charge of details, working from instinct before the paint decides to pool into the nearby spots on the rag paper.
It’s been 30 years since Lurie tried a different participatory-activity-as-documentary storytelling season. “Fishing with John,” which followed his boat-bound trips down the waterways of multiple continents, came with an on-screen partner for him to banter with. “Painting with John” is a much more solitary exercise, a fitting arrival in the early weeks of 2021 but one that doesn’t need lockdown conditions in order to captivate.
Pair It With: The podcast “The Lonely Palette” doesn’t have the same wise curmudgeon vibe, but it’s a listening experience that manages to wrestle with the same ideas of why art makes us feel a certain way. Part art history primer and part creative experiment, host Tamar Avishai’s deep dives into both iconic and undersung museum mainstays will also do a welcome bit of reframing.