A founding member of the musical group Lounge Lizards, John Lurie isn’t well known as an artist, but his latest show at Roebling Hall’s small Chelsea space showcases a rich style that is also infused with irony.
“Om, Fuck Me, Om with Ointment” (2004) is one of the treasures in the show. Its success emerges when Lurie’s line collapses from exhaustion and allows automatic emotion to dictate the visual organization. Sometimes difficult, Lurie’s sketches are more often frustrating. Unlike the repeated doggie-style sex and bestiality images and references that dominate a big chunk of the show, “Om, Fuck Me” isn’t straightforward, but drifts in the uncomfortable space carved out by its disparate elements. The drawing explodes with tension, frustration, and bacchanalian line.
“No Bombs in Tunnel” (2004) is another drawing that oscillates from the surreal to the mundane. Here Lurie’s work vibrates with anxiety just below the surface. His drawing is riveting as soon as it feels familiar, dissatisfied, and intimate, like a high school doodle. When he allows his drawings to disassociate and meander they seem to know where they are going without the help of one-liners to guide them along.
If the sketches are limited to crisp line, the paintings grapple with ethereal light. In “First You Blow Us and Then We’ll Let You Go” (2004), the image of a female figure confronted by three fluffy white sexed up bunnies is only one fragment of a scene with rolling green hills that opens up into a sky of clouds and what look like sprays of turds and stripes. There is a slapstick element in this painting that is heightened by its sharp juxtapositions. The painting works because each element seems to move at its own speed, frozen in an impossible moment.
“Lizard with Hitlers” (2004) is similarly free of jargon, with a reptile lounging on a tuft of charred earth surrounded by a cage-like grid. Below, smaller cages are labeled like an exhibit, “Hitler,” “Hitler Smiling,” “Chicken,” “Smiling Hitler Chicken,” all offset by a smaller frieze of dining room pictographs. The image seems rich when the cutesiness dissipates. “A Camel’s Head Can Be as Large as a Small Man” (2004) has an exoticism more characteristic of the poetic symbolism of the early 20th century. If there wasn’t such an overriding sense of disdain for the history of art in Lurie’s work, I could swear he was rummaging through the past and fumbling across useful language.
Contrary to Roebling Hall’s framing of Lurie as an outsider, his work is best when it is raw, and it is corrosive when it jostles up against idiosyncratic wit and still retains a precious but meditative sensibility. The male figure in his small drawing “Tanks, Your Welcome” (2004) masturbates as he fixates on a tank. The whole scene comes across as a metaphor for the artist’s process, as much a scene of the “artist at work” as we’re going to get in this show. As the guy stares at the tank, clutching his dick, you can’t help but wonder if he’s getting off on the hard shell of the tank or the thought of the soldiers inside.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.