You are looking into a hand-held mirror and see a man shaving. He's audibly huffing and puffing. He puts down the razor to pick up a brush to paint the canvas propped up against his bicycle's handlebars. Yes, this man is biking while performing these tasks. He passes a person on a bench who is unfazed by the spectacle, as if Los Angeles's longtime status as flypaper for freaks has steeled its citizens against all manners of oddballery. Welcome to " Let's Paint, Bicycle & Shave TV," filmed by a camera attached to Mr. Let's Paint's helmet.
While most episodes of Let's Paint TV are not filmed like this, Mr. Let's Paint's antics are par for the course. A large percentage of his more than 1,000 videos show the brush-wielding daredevil painting, exercising, and performing some variable third task—all simultaneously—amid hallucinatory video effects and editing techniques. It's no surprise that comedian Eric Andre, of the absurdist The Eric Andre Show, describes Mr. Let's Paint, a.k.a. John Kilduff, as his "idol."
Kilduff graduated from Los Angeles's Otis College in 1987, and afterward eked out a living selling plein air cityscape paintings of LA at arts and crafts fairs throughout California. He also trained with famed sketch comedy troupe the Groundlings (past alumni include Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig) and studied improv at Los Angeles City College.
In the mid 90s, Kilduff hosted a surreal sketch comedy program on local public access TV called The Jim Berry Show, a proto–Eric Andre of sorts that featured outlandish costumes, man-on-the-street stunts, and low-budget visual gags. A few years later, Kilduff was inspired to create a different program, which he envisioned as equal parts painting tutorial, call-in show, and psychedelic motivational lecture. Let's Paint TV began in 2001, broadcast by Los Angeles cable station Eagle Rock Public Access. In 2008, Kilduff took the show to YouTube where it currently airs live every Monday through Friday at 2 PM pacific time. To its devotees, it's a hilarious and strange program that combines elements of comedy, performance art, and late-night television, but the show has largely been ignored by the mainstream—though Kilduff has brought his act to The Tyra Banks Show and was once quickly booted offstage on America's Got Talent.
Where Bob Ross used The Joy of Painting to teach viewers how to paint, Kilduff has uses Let's Paint to teach viewers how to simply try. In one of the show's most famous episodes, " Let's Paint, Exercise, & Blend Drinks TV!" Kilduff casually lays down his ethos as he throws bananas and lemonade into a blender: "I don't know if this is gonna taste good or nothin', but I'm gonna do it anyway." His attempt at painting, as always, ends up being a mess and, as always, he seems winded after only a few minutes of shouting about embracing failure while running on that treadmill of his.
Over the phone, Kilduff tells me, "It's not my job to make a masterpiece and succeed. It's my job to be there and persevere and experiment and fail and keep going." Good luck finding anyone else who fails as passionately as he does. When the host, covered in paint and sweat, bargains with his callers to stop cursing and shouting their gang affiliations, he resembles a dad trying to motivate a losing little league team, or a lovable version of Chris Farley's famous psychotic life coach character from Saturday Night Live.
"Frankly when you see someone who shows you how to make a perfect painting, how does that inspire you?" he asks during our conversation. "It could repel you from learning how to paint, since you see how impossible it all is." His work is about process, not results, and he looks at it as being relevant to more than just art. "[In life], we're trying to do everything at once to see if we can do it," he says. "My work is kind of like a test of our endurance to see if we can survive in these days."
Explaining how exactly he has been able to make a living off of doing this, Kilduff says, "I've always likened myself to an octopus, where you have the different arms reaching out to get money however you can." At least a couple of those arms reached into cyberspace, as Kilduff seized on the commercial promise of the internet early on, joining eBay in 1998 and later putting his work up for sale on Amazon, Etsy, and Zatista. A similar approach informed his transition from terrestrial cable television to the internet. When the early livestreaming site Stickam launched, he embraced the opportunity to broadcast his show online. Then, in 2006, he took to YouTube and became a minor viral star in the site's early days.
Today, a handful of fine art spaces like Brooklyn's Issue Project Room and Saint Paul's Denler Art Center solicit odd performances or gallery exhibitions from Kilduff. Sometimes, his business assumes the form of a zany scheme. In advance of this Mother's Day, Kilduff will be setting up shop Daniel Rolnik Gallery in Santa Monica and painting pictures of flowers for customers to give to their moms. His tagline: "Flowers die, but a painting of flowers will last forever." He also does paintings of fast food and at one point was, in his words, "selling them at fast-food prices. Originally, I sold paintings of hamburgers and French fries for $4.95 or something." He used to peddle these from a truck, but was then invited to set up shop for a while at Blackstone Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, painting whatever a customer requested between two buns, resulting in, among other culinary impossibilities, a few boob sandwiches.
Blackstone Gallery hosted Kilduff again this past January for a Let's Paint performance residency, which often had curator Steven Higgins biting his nails. One night, Kilduff started a small fire when some kernels of corn fell out of the popcorn omelet he was preparing and onto the range's flame. Another time, Higgins was watching rapt in fear while Kilduff was boiling pasta and running on his treadmill, the pot of boiling water teetering on the edge of the stove as Kilduff's knee bumped against it. "It looked like he was going to pass out," Higgins says. "I tried that treadmill, and it's very difficult to run on it and touch other things."
That sort of danger is part of why Eric Andre declares Kilduff to be such a big influence on his own style. The two share a mutual admiration: Andre invited Kilduff on his show during its first season for an interview that was ultimately cut (despite the episode continuing to be called "John Kilduff"), and Andre joined Kilduff for one of those January performances at Blackstone.
"I love the chaos he creates," Andre says. The similarities between the two men's style are fairly clear. You can see how " Let's Paint and Anal Holocaust "—in which Kilduff paints the band Anal Holocaust while a woman in Bavarian beer hall garb named Inga prepares pumpkin pie—influenced the "Attack DeMarco" segment from Eric Andre, where indie rocker Mac DeMarco is brutalized mid-performance, Japanese-game-show-style.
Despite a huge body of work and years of absurdist stunts, few in the art world seem to have taken note of Kilduff. This, to Andre, is an outrage—according to the comedian, Mr. Let's Paint "should have a show at the Whitney... I feel like compared to what he does, the art world is full of pretentious, humorless snobs. Boring, liberal fucks."
Kilduff shares Andre's exasperation to some extent. "Particularly in the art world," he vents, "everybody wants to prove how extra smart and important they are."
Higgins notes that during Kilduff's artist residency, people who saw his videos on YouTube "would come in and tell John, 'You're my hero, you changed my life.' Literally every day." Equally strong was the response from random passersby, who would walk in after seeing Kilduff performing through the gallery window, hypnotized by the man simultaneously running on a treadmill, painting, and cooking. "John was yelling, 'Embrace failure!' and, 'Persevere!' and all these things that are innately relevant to people's personal life."
This is Kilduff's modest means of spreading his gospel. He's just a sweaty man alone on the screen, working his ass off and doing a bad job sometimes. But it's all for you. He just wants you to know it's OK to try, even if you make an ass out of yourself over and over. And Kilduff really does seem like the artist for our over-stimulated times and thinly-stretched lives. When Kilduff is on that treadmill painting a portrait of the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz and practicing open heart surgery while taking calls, we can't help but feel like there's a little bit of us in that performance. He strives to get to the very, very bottom of an idea (be it ridiculous or not) until its little nugget of truth or hilarity is unveiled.
What's next for Mr. Let's Paint? For starters, he's trying to get LACMA to send him to space. The museum has a program called the Art Technology Lab, which pairs artists with technology firms, and he has his fingers crossed that they can hook him up with a space flight company like Virgin Galactic or Space X. If that doesn't work, he tells me, he'll buy an astronaut costume, stand on a blue box in front of a blue screen, and make a video of himself painting in space.
Follow Mike on Twitter.