Wayne White

Wayne White: funny man. (Image courtesy PBS / January 16, 2013)

Beauty Is Embarrassing

Monday, Jan. 21, 10 p.m., on PBS's Independent Lens, check local listings


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 from the 1980s. White also made ground-breaking music videos in the '90s, for bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Offspring. These days, White, who gave up working in TV, is best known for his word paintings. White takes thrift store landscape paintings 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 that jump out of the paintings.

The words are surgically tucked in or through or around the preexisting images, as if White is collaborating with the original painters. On top of scenes of a bucolic mill, a charmingly dilapidated barn, ominous surging waves, a grand mountain vista or the occasional still life — all done in cheesy 1950s hotel art realism — White paints phrases, usually in all caps, like "Drop the Country Boy Act," "Fanfuckintastic," or "Date Mate Sate Grate." They're funny. Silly. Absurdist one-liners. He gives the finger to the art establishment. One painting says, "Marcel Duchamp is a Big French Fag," which the father of Dada may have in fact approved had he lived to see it.

"There's a lot of people in the art world with sticks up their butts," says White.

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 between the two.

The art world is filled with outsiders. White sets himself up as an outsider even within that haven of free spirits. "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.

"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."

Raised in Tennessee, White's taste for drawing and art was something of a mystery to his sports-centric parents.

His work has many stoic male figures, based on those who were filled with disgust at 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 strove not to show emotion or sensitivity. The title of the film 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 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 antidepressants 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 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!"



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