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: I think it’s made me a better painter. It’s a very clear, crisp light, and it really helps you see color.
The part of L.A. that I don’t love so much is “the industry” — Hollywood. The difficulties of working in that system, and the disappointments I’ve had. The dreams that didn’t come true.
Wayne White, I Blame L.A.
I assume this is where titles like I BLAME L.A. or L.A. YOU FUCKIN BITCH come from. Or my favorite, SENSITIVE SOULS FLEEING LOS ANGELES LOOK OVER THEIR SHOULDERS AT THE FIRES OF EXPENSIVE DINNERS LIGHTING UP THE NIGHT.
[Laughs] I love that painting! That’s my imagination dwelling on some kind of apocalyptic scene, like something out of Day of the Locust — all these people who can’t take it any more, looking back at this Hieronymous Bosch landscape of suffering and fire and sin.
How did you and Neil meet and start working together?
Neil Berkeley: Wayne and I met about ten years ago. I was interning as a P.A. around town, and he was drawing Priceline commercials. Then in 2009, the Todd Oldham book [Maybe Now I’ll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve] came out, and his career really started to take off in the fine art world. At that same time, I had started a motion graphics company, so the idea originally was to animate his artwork, because it looks like it’s flying off the page anyway. We started out doing that, but we were having lunch and
I said, “You’ve got a really interesting personality and family and career. Maybe it’s time to do a documentary.” He sort of begged off at first, but eventually decided it was a good idea.
WW: I didn’t think it would be an interesting documentary — I do have some humility! — but I reluctantly said yes. I didn’t think it would be a reality, because Neil had never done a documentary before. But then I went down to Rice University in Houston, Texas to build this giant puppet head — the world’s largest George Jones head. And, lo and behold, Neil flew down there on his own dime and started interviewing me on camera. At first I just thought I’d humor him. I said, “You play like you’re a documentary filmmaker, and I’ll play like I’m the Great Subject.”
NB: For all the stuff shot in Wayne’s studio, we didn’t have a crew; it was just me and him. My favorite parts of the movie are the small, intimate moments between me and Wayne. Like when he says, “Look at this shit, it’s worth a lot of money” — he’s looking at me, trying to make me laugh.
You were able to include some great vintage behind-the-scenes footage from the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse days.
WW: That’s the first time that stuff has ever been seen beyond me and a couple of other people. And I hadn’t seen it since the 80s.
There was something we called “Flocked-Box Theater” — that was the behind-the-scenes puppet show that we did in our dressing rooms while we were waiting in between takes on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. It was all improvised theater; we did it just to amuse ourselves.
In the past decade or so, you’ve become known for your “word pictures,” which you do using existing thrift store paintings.
WW: The paintings I use are all from what was basically an “over-the-sofa” genre from the sixties and seventies. They usually sold these paintings with the sofa; they were displayed in J.C. Penney’s and Sears, and you would buy the paintings along with the couch. Robert Wood and Paul Detlefson are two of the masters of that genre. I leave the artists’ signatures on there because I feel like I’m collaborating with them; I’m not defacing their paintings, I’m lovingly putting my additions in there, copying their light source, their color palette and whatnot.
Wayne White, Doin Moviestars and Paintin Masterpieces
And I only paint on reproductions; I wouldn’t want to paint on originals, because that really would be defacing the work. I always say there’s too much human smell on the originals. But reproductions are like an empty commodity. All the pretty’s been sucked out of ‘em. They’ve been looked at and used up, and when I find them they’re like one step away from the garbage can. So it’s sort of an act of resurrection, or recycling. They’re empty, and I fill them back up again.
When you first started doing the word paintings, most of the texts were very straightforwardly legible, but over the years you’ve experimented more with very involved, almost abstract, psychedelic forms — like something out of DeChirico, or Dr. Seuss. Were you reacting at all against the novelty aspect, against people immediately saying “Oh, I get it”?
WW: Yes, I wanted a slower take. Even though the words in the later paintings are very twisty and complex, they are legible if you take the time. But I also just got tired of doing straightforward lettering. I wanted to branch out and do a variation on a theme. I’ve always been interested in complex forms like that. I guess I was a bit influenced by Wild Style graffiti, and by Frank Gehry’s buildings. I think of letters as being like human forms, human figures, and anybody who deals with the figure in painting naturally wants to put it through its paces.
Wayne White, Local Whores
As a Los Angeles artist who uses words in your paintings, you’ve been compared a lot to Ed Ruscha. In the film, you seem to bristle a bit when Ruscha’s name comes up.
WW: I do that for the drama of it, but I really love Ed Ruscha. It’s a superficial kind of comparison, that’s what I’m bristling at, but Ruscha as an artist is fascinating to me. I’ve loved him since I was a student.
Being from the South is a major theme of your work, and of the film as well.
WW: I feel more Southern in L.A. than I ever did at home in Tennessee. There, I’m just another face in the crowd. But once you’re plucked out of the context that defines you, you can’t help becoming more self-aware and analytical about it. And of course the South is an irresistible subject, because there’s such a storytelling tradition. It’s rich material.
But I do react against it, in a lot of ways. I did a puppet show installation in New York City in 2004 called “Southern Daddy Shame Ray.” It was a peep show; you put a quarter in, the lights come on, and all these Southern figures come alive: George Wallace, Nathan Bedford Forest, Bear Bryant — all these men that represent the Southern male authority figure. That’s a big theme of mine. Growing up in the South in the sixties, it was very much a man’s world: very much a macho culture, very sports-oriented. I had a lot of coaches and teachers who were very authoritarian and no-nonsense, who squelched any “non-manly” exuberance. I reacted very strongly against that. And I felt like I had to leave the South in order to become an artist, which is kind of a bittersweet thing.
NB: This was one of the things that drew me to Wayne initially. There’s very few Southerners here in Los Angeles, and when you do meet them you tend to gravitate to them, and bond over that.
I remember when I first met Wayne, he gave me this weird suspicious glare and said, “You’re from Oklahoma? You don’t sound like you’re from Oklahoma.” I told him I had lost my accent in order to work in TV, and he said, “Why?” I felt this great shame, like I had disappointed this Southern authority figure.
WW: See, it’s inherent in me, too! Even though I reacted against it, I definitely have that in me; I’ve inherited it. I was trained to be that way. I have to watch it with my own kids; as they’ve grown up, I’ve heard myself sounding that way.
NB: When you bolt from the South, like Wayne and I both did, you eventually look back with fondness and reverence. I think a lot of people experience that, especially when they leave and don’t go back.
Watching the film, I thought a little bit about Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which is another film about trying to negotiate Southern heritage and history. What were the influences on the film? Did you watch other documentaries about the South, or about artists?
NB: I wanted to make a funny, hopeful, inspiring documentary; I wasn’t going to do your typical doc fare where you feel like hell after you watch the thing. The Devil and Daniel Johnston was one inspiration for me, because I was making a movie about someone not a lot of people have heard of, which is a huge hurdle. And then the movie Anvil, which had just come out when I started — I loved that movie. I’m from Oklahoma, and that metal music is part of my childhood. And that movie is so hopeful and so inspiring; it’s about a group of guys who just have this need to be creative.
There’s really two stories in the film: there’s Wayne’s résumé, which I knew backwards and forwards when we started shooting, and then there’s all the personal stuff, which I didn’t know about before I hit “record.” I learned about his family, and his relationship with his wife [the graphic novelist Mimi Pond], and the South, as we shot. And people are really responding to the personal element.
WW: I never set out to be an inspirational figure! It’s sort of overwhelming. The film has been almost therapeutic for other artists. I hear from a lot of people that it inspired them to get back in the studio, to start painting again. Whether they’ll follow through with it, who knows? But it’s overwhelming in that moment. I have to back away from it sometimes, because it’s too much for me. But I’m learning to enjoy it. I’ll be making appearances to support and promote the film, and meet people and answer their questions afterwards.
And what happens after that?
WW: I’m currently negotiating to do a big installation in Santa Ana with more large walking-around puppets like the ones you see in the film, and with my hometown, Chattanooga, Tennessee, to do an outdoor word sculpture, and another installation — which is a real satisfying return-of-the-prodigal-son kind of project. I’m continuing to do my stage show, which is an hour-long monologue with music and puppets — that’s an ongoing performance piece that I hope to keep doing for many years. And I’m also going to judge a funny cat video contest for Purina Friskies. I get a nice chunk of change, and six months’ worth of free cat food.
Beauty Is Embarrassing is in select theaters across the U.S. now.