BORN IN CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee, the artist Wayne White currently lives in Los Angeles, a city toward which he harbors mixed feelings. Prior to the 2000s, White was primarily known as an animator, designer, and puppeteer who worked with a dream team of graphic artists, including Gary Panter and Ric Heitzman, to establish the look of the classic Saturday morning TV show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (Conky, Globey, Mr. Kite, Randy, and Dirty Dog are all White’s creations). Before catching his big break with Pee-Wee, he toiled in the underground art and comics scenes of 1980s downtown New York (working as a studio assistant for both Red Grooms and Art Spiegelman) and designed the characters and sets for Nashville public television’s Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose, a sort of proto-Playhouse replete with spiky German Expressionist angles, talkative furniture, and howling hound dogs.
More recently White has been celebrated for his trademark series of readymade “word pictures,” in which goofy, cryptic, often profane mottoes spelled out in enormous block letters loom amid otherwise tranquil thrift-store landscapes. (Some examples: NUMB NUTZ; TOPLESS DRAG STRIP RACE RIOT; PILLBILLY; BOO FUCKIN HOO; THUNK UP; POON.) Other texts are more self-aware and allusive, filled with humorous riffs on art history: FAILED ABSTRACT PAINTINGS OF THE SEVENTIES; WHAT—HE THINKS HE’S GONNA FAUX NAÏVE HIS WAY INTO THEIR HEARTS?; BARNETT NEWMAN’S SUMMER HOUSE; TAKE YOUR FORMS WRESTLED FROM THE VOID AND GET THE HELL OUT. These striking, hilarious, and frequently breathtaking paintings, first exhibited on the walls of Los Feliz restaurant Fred 62, soon caught the attention of people like designer Todd Oldham (whose AMMO Press published a book-length White retrospective, Maybe Now I’ll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve, in 2009), the band Lambchop (who have used White’s art on four of their album covers), and Cliff Benjamin of Western Project (White’s current L.A. gallery). White’s work — which also encompasses sculpture and installation art — combines a manic whimsy reminiscent of Grooms or Kenny Scharf with a pastoral classicism and deep appreciation for Southern history and heritage.
The new documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, directed by fellow Dixie-to-L.A. transplant Neil Berkeley, provides an excellent introduction to White’s work for a general audience, and lets him show off his rambunctious, hammy, lovable personality (and passable banjo-playing) to boot. I spoke with White and Berkeley in White’s studio in Silverlake.
It seems like you have a love-hate relationship with L.A, Wayne.
Wayne White: Well, that's true of a lot of people. I came here originally because of Pee-Wee's Playhouse; for three years my wife and I were back and forth between New York and L.A. Eventually, we wound up here, because we wanted to buy a house and start a family. So L.A. for me represents that new phase of my life: parenthood, home ownership, grown-up responsibility. I love the climate here; I love the scenery, the desert. And I love the L.A. light...read more