From 2004-mid 2005 I was John Lurie’s Personal Assistant. He lived on a street in SoHo that competes with the chaos and spectacle of any medieval city, and like various reclusive characters from literature he rarely left his sixth floor walk-up, having been diagnosed with what some doctors tentatively called Chronic or Advanced Lyme’s Disease. Flickering light would send his body into paralytic shock and his muscles along the left side of his body constantly (visibly) spasmed. He spent the majority of his time either drawing or sleeping, and he used the top of his washing machine as a workstation, experimenting with ink, watercolor, and oil pastels. His paintings are featured in the Angels Without Wings exhibit in the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts, now through February 24, 2011. Click on read more for a personal account and recollection of him and his artwork…
It was 2am on a January night and I was driving John to buy cigarettes. We were in Montauk where fourteen years earlier he had filmed the Jim Jarmusch Fishing With John episode (the shark one). One of John’s doctors was at this tip of Long Island, and it was a regular part of my job to drive him to doctor appointments. “This town needs more crime,” he commented as we passed the dark patrician mansions that had been abandoned for the winter. We were staying at his friend James Nares’ place, and we were speculating about whether or not ghosts exist. He proposed that ghosts and the infinite in general could always be nearby. “It’s like fish,” he explained, “they can’t possibly conceive that a hand is going to reach down and grab them out of the water. But when you’re about to catch them, they know that something is about to happen, and they’re scared.”
This is what I thought about when I saw John’s pieces in the Angels Without Wings show. His combination of ink, watercolor, gouache, and oil paint is algaeceous in texture and color; browns and greens ooze, flatten out, then spawn yellow fuzzy mold. Each painting features one or two sexless protagonists (sometimes human, sometimes animal) with aquatic vertebrate stupidity and vulnerability. Even the wide-screen TV and k-mart torchiere lamp in their “living rooms” are overgrown in their dirty self-enclosed waterpods.
His titles read like a comment that the funniest person you knew from childhood would say to you while looking at the painting, e.g., Anchor is stuck. I cannot go anywhere. Time for a sandwich; and There is a caveman in my apartment examining the fur. I wish he would leave; and Hairy Frog Pig Beast Man with Hat (not featured in this show). John possesses a fundamental creativity, and through his music and paintings he shows the listeners and the viewers a different way to “see” and comprehend. I always thought that John should write for children’s television. Like John K (creator of Ren and Stimpy) and Roald Dahl, he would break all of the standard rules of form and language and embrace the grotesque qualities that attracts the attention of children and encourages their intelligence and creativity.
I didn’t realize how sick he was until I came across his alto saxaphone one day and asked him to play. He fiddled around with the buttons, reed in his mouth while I went to clean brushes in the sink. The sound came out of nowhere and it was sort of terrifying and gorgeous to hear, as though someone had begun singing at full volume in a silent room, but it quickly stopped. He he was trembling, couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t feel the left side of his body. He tried it a few more times but ended up putting the saxophone down. I remember how quiet he was for the rest of the day, this coming from the person who once said, “playing music at its absolute best… is like visiting God’s house for a minute then coming back”. When I returned that following Monday he had pulled out his guitar and was strumming and singing in a gruff voice, “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land,” and then he howled like a cheerful dog.
I haven’t spoken to John much since I stopped working for him, besides calls from “Restricted” every year on my birthday. I’ve been thinking about him more because many friends were trying to extract any nugget of macabre information I may have on him since the infamous New Yorker article (subscription required to read) was published this summer. When I was working for John, he depended entirely on me and two other people who were working for him, and I didn’t have much of a life outside of him which was ultimately the reason why I left the job. He’s an incredibly charismatic person and his humor (and his dependency, to a certain amount) made you want to be around him all the time. It was further complicated by seeing him clutch the left side of his body in pain, and I didn’t know what to say when he would voice frustration and depression to me; I could only be there for him to have an outlet. I should also add that I made a horrible assistant. I never wore my glasses so I couldn’t see more than twelve feet in front of me (an unsuccessful self-remedy for myopia). I hated talking on the phone for any business dealings, and was generally scatterbrained; once John found a sausage in the silverware drawer and a spoon in the refrigerator.
It was great to watch John’s paintings in-the-making. He made few mistakes that ever ended up with a discarded painting because he–the musician–would rework and improvise. Often he would name the painting and the problems would be resolved, like Horse With Mullet. His persona (and his ego) is inextricable from the artwork, which is perhaps why the art is so compelling. You laugh and want to be drawn into his world entirely, but after a few moments you hesitate. Perhaps the thing holding you back is a deep ichthyological fear.
Angels Without Wings is open daily in the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, 333 South Broad St. until February 24, 2011. K-Fai Steele is an occasional contributor to artblog.