Wayne White tells his life story one slide at a time
Marcel Duchamp did it with a urinal. Jasper Johns used the American flag. And Andy Warhol turned to Campbell’s soup cans.
Ever since modern art was invented, artists have been transforming the strangest things into unexpected masterpieces.
Wayne White continues this tradition with his one-man stage show, which tells his life story as a topsy-turvy adventure that could happen to anyone. “Wayne White: You’re Supposed to Act All Impressed” is a supercharged version of an art-school staple: the visiting artist’s slide lecture.
Every semester, university art departments invite artists to campus auditoriums, where they project images of their work and try to say something intelligent about it. Some bumble. Some are eloquent. And some won’t shut up.
But no one is as entertaining as White, who combines insight and humility in a plainspoken overview of his life and his art and how the two have fueled each other the last 30 years.
White’s autobiographical extravaganza, which has been presented at Largo at the Coronet, is a PowerPoint presentation spiced up with live banjo strumming, harmonica playing, piano accompaniment, family films from the ‘60s, video snippets from MTV’s heyday (he was the art director for music videos by Peter Gabriel and the Smashing Pumpkins) and plentiful images of his laugh-out-loud paintings, sculptures and installations.
Mark Flanagan, who owns Largo at the Coronet and booked White’s performances, says, “The show is extremely unique. It’s totally its own thing. People don’t understand what it is. Someone asked if Wayne was going to make paintings on stage.”
White’s Los Angeles art dealer, Cliff Benjamin, first saw his paintings — loaded phrases emblazoned on framed, thrift-store lithographs — hanging in a restaurant. He recalls, “It was the late ‘90s and I had just moved to Los Feliz. I’d sit beneath these paintings at Fred 62 and they annoyed me. I couldn’t tell if they were really smart or really bad.”
So Benjamin visited White’s studio, in the basement of the home where he lives with his wife, Mimi Pond, and their kids, Woodrow, 18, and Lulu, 15.
“I walked in and was bowled over,” Benjamin says. “I was amazed at how diverse his art was. He showed me his Emmys and told me about the sets and the puppets he created for ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse’ and the art direction he did for the music videos. He showed me his sketchbooks and drawings and comics. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy can do anything. He’s the contemporary Mark Twain.’”
Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons,” “Futurama” and the comic strip “Life in Hell,” has known White for 25 years, since their comic-strip days in New York. He says, “Wayne is talented and weird, which is great. And he’s really, really funny. His ideas are really smart. Who cares if he looks like a backwoodsman who should be carrying a musket and wearing a coonskin cap?”
Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., White says his first sense of art came from roadside attractions, like Confederama and Lookout Mountain, and advertisements for Rock City, painted on the roofs of barns. He was also drawn to the graphics on detergent and cereal boxes and inspired by View-Masters, “Captain Kangaroo” and comic books, especially Superman.
After graduating from Middle Tennessee State University, White came across an issue of Raw magazine and moved to New York in part to meet its creator, Art Spiegelman. In Manhattan, he learned a lot looking on in Spiegelman’s studio, worked odd jobs, became a successful cartoonist and illustrator, and did his own idiosyncratic puppet shows for “the sheer joy of performing before a crowd.”
Through an old friend, White landed a job in Nashville, making the sets and puppets for a local PBS children’s TV show, “Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose.” That led to his big break, designing the sets, creating characters, building puppets and acting in “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”
White and Pond moved to Los Angeles in 1990, where their careers took off. Pond followed up “The Valley Girl’s Guide to Life” by writing for “The Simpsons” and “Designing Women” as well as creating cartoons for this newspaper and Seventeen magazine. White created the puppets and sets for several children’s television programs along with more work on music videos. Then he turned to art.
Mark Mothersbaugh, who knows White from “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” days, credits him with being “an early pioneer of California’s lowbrow scene.” The co-founder of Devo says White “was around at a time when what’s taken for granted now was being formed. While the Venice mafia was getting all the attention, something else was happening that may have had a larger impact. It’s a sensibility that resonates with a lot of overlapping, different politics.”
That comes through in White’s show, which is driven by his uncanny capacity to carry on a rollicking conversation with himself while making you feel not only as if he’s talking to you but that you’ve been buddies for years. Wisecracking puppets occasionally interrupt his monologue, making the show seem as if it had sprung from some 19th century parlor full of wildly civilized smart alecks. (For information about upcoming White shows, call Largo at the Coronet:  855-0350)
Neil Berkeley is directing “Beauty Is Embarrassing,” a documentary about White’s life and art due out in May. He decided to make the film, which began shooting last year, because he admires White and thinks he’s funny but also because so few people are aware of White’s media-spanning talents — what he has done in art, television and music.
White sees “You’re Supposed to Act All Impressed” as just another facet of his multifaceted career: “It all leads back to the main themes of my work: human vanity and ego and punching through pretense to get to the core — to cut through … and touch people.”
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