Laugh Riot: Cartoonist, Puppeteer and Word Painter Wayne White Thumbs His Nose at the Art World

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Beauty Is Embarrassing
Opens Sept. 28 at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006, realartways.org

Wayne White says “fuck” a lot. He paints the word “fuck” a lot, too. White, the subject of the excellent and entertaining documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, is famous -- sorta -- for a number of things. He was one of the key artists behind the look of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the manic, dayglo psychedelic children’s show that hypnotized kids and blew the minds of college students in the 1980s. White also made some ground-breaking music videos which used puppetry and animation in the ’90s, for bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Offspring. These days, White, who gave up working in TV after basically driving himself crazy with exhaustion, is best known for his word paintings. White takes cheap thrift store landscape paintings and mass-produced prints on canvas and then paints monolithic letters, in extreme perspective, carefully wedged into the scenes like model ships in a bottle. And he paints hilarious, absurd, poetic phrases -- some in rainbow block letters, others in surreal curlicues, dramatic cantilevers, flames or country-style wood blocks that jump out of the paintings.

The phrases are surgically tucked in or through or around the preexisting images, as if White is collaborating with the original painters. The letters often have a vertiginous two-point perspective, like receding roadways cut into the image field, mostly in all caps. On top of scenes of a bucolic mill, a charmingly dilapidated barn, ominous surging waves, a grand mountain vista or the occasional still live -- all done in cheesy 1950s hotel art realism -- White paints phrases, usually in all caps, like “Drop the Country Boy Act,” “Fanfuckintastic,” “Important/Vague,” “Date Mate Sate Grate,” or a battalion of bunker-like ships in the shape of “FuckYou” landing on the beach like at Normandy. It’s funny. Silly. Absurdist one-liners. Sometimes the letters are hard-to-read abstract thing-a-ma-bobs, like something that dripped off a Dali painting. He gives the finger to the art establishment. One painting pokes fun at minimalist icon Donald Judd. Another says, “Marcel Duchamp is a Big French Fag,” which the father of dada may have in fact approved had he lived to see it. “Failed Abstract Paintings of the Seventies” reads another, painted over an autumn landscape.

“There’s a lot of people in the art world with sticks up their butts,” says White. 

It’s not hard to see a connection with White’s work to all kinds of other much bigger names in the art world. Philip Guston, Caroll Dunham and Kenny Scharf all come to mind, particularly with regard to his puppetry and his set design. As do the more punk rock aesthetics of Raymond Pettibon and Matt Groening in White’s cartoons. But White’s recent paintings almost always bring up the work of fellow L.A. word painter Ed Ruscha, who White has said he admires.

“Everyone wants to compare me to Ed-fucking-Ruscha all the time,” he says in the film. And some critics seemed to dismiss White’s word paintings because of the apparent though loose relationship.

The art world is filled with outsiders. But White sets himself up as an outsider even within that haven of free spirits. In part, he says, it’s because his paintings are funny, and the uptight network of art critics and gallerists takes itself too seriously, and is basically filled with self-doubt when it comes to humor or entertainment or even popular, mass appeal. (See how success turned critics off of Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali.) “Entertainment is a dirty word in the art world,” says White, who is a bit of a showman and hambone himself, playing banjo, doing silly dances and dressing up like some sort of Colonel Sanders for some public appearances. (White, with his beard, looks like a cross between Zach Galifianakis and Tom Hanks in The Ladykillers.)

And as with comedy in general -- in films, in literature, in music -- making people chuckle is almost a guarantee of not getting taken seriously. But it’s basically what White is after. “I’ll settle for laughter any day,” says White of the reaction many have upon viewing his paintings.  “Laughter is a deep thing. Most people don’t think it is. But it is.”

Freud would have agreed, and there are a number of elements of White’s story crying out for dime-store psychoanalysis. Raised in the mountains of Tennessee, White and his taste for drawing and art, was something of a mystery to his sports-centric parents.

“When I was hitting puberty, I would go out way, deep, deep in the woods and strip naked and run around,” White says with a likeable laugh. “It was a complete sap-rising urge.” White doesn’t get too deep into his other sap-rising urges. For all his foul-mouthing, his work isn’t exactly dirty, or sex-obsessed. White repeatedly comes back to his sense of shame he felt growing up. His work has many stoic male figures, based on those who were filled with disgust for the ways in which his creativity manifested itself.

One of his junior high art teachers shared White’s drawings with the school’s principal who took White aside and said “Those do not look like the drawings of a red-blooded American boy.” 

White developed a whole series of characters, big headed puppets and jowly cartoons based on these largely mute, stone-faced, mush-mouthed men who worked not to show emotion or sensitivity. “Beauty is Embarrassing,” the film’s title, comes from the text of one of White’s paintings, and it’s a theory that he expounds upon. It ties in to this idea of repressed emotionality, though it’s a funny phrase, too. “When we see something beautiful, we’re in awe, and raw emotion comes to the surface,” he says. “We’re sort of embarrassed by ourselves when we’re struck by true beauty.”

Set on leaving the region, White headed off to college in Murfreesboro, Tenn., where he hung out with a bunch of other artists and freaks during what he calls the “era of the country hippie.” There were a lot of puppets, and skits and experimental films. From there White moved to New York in the ’80s, where, after doing some comics for High Times and meeting the artist who would become his wife (and the apparent source of sanity in his life) he got his gig helping conceive and execute what became the first season of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, which then moved production to Los Angeles, where it was made until its final season in 1990.  

From there, with a young family, and projects in children’s shows, commercials and cartoons, White appears to have worked himself into a nervous breakdown of sorts, which pushed him toward anti-depressants and an end to his work in TV.

Realizing that he wanted to work by himself in his studio, White returned to paintings. Eventually he showed his word paintings at a local coffee shop. Influential designer Todd Oldham became interested in putting together a book, Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, which came out in 2009 and changed White’s life, introducing his work to a mass audience. (White’s work also appeared on the cover of former Advocate columnist Cintra Wilson’s 2004 novel Colors Insulting to Nature.)

Beauty is Embarrassing is a touching and funny documentary. It shows White working at home in his studio, horsing around with his family and friends, hanging out with his parents in Tennessee and generally savoring this most recent successful phase of his career.

“Who said there’s no second acts in American life? F. Scott Fitzgerald?” White asks the camera at one point before bursting out with a mock rage response. “Well, fuck you, F. Scott Fitzgerald!”iv>

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