Wayne White's breakthrough moment as a painter came after he decided to stop painting.
He had been experimenting with creating monumental-styled letters, and making it look as though giant screen titles had somehow landed into his natural landscapes. Then one day White found the effect was better, and more humorous, if he just painted the letters over cheesy flea market lithographs that he got on the cheap.
Those funny, kitschy paintings exclaimed "HOTSHOTSANDKNOWITALLS" or usually, more profane phrases such as "ILOVETHEWHOLEF#CKINWORLD" (right) in all capital letters. His works were a kind of Hillbilly Haiku, a brand of low-brow folk art that got the Tennessee-born artist noticed in the high-brow gallery world.
Not that White eschews the low-brow connection. He embraces it. His career, compactly recounted in the 90-minute Neil Berkley documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, overflows with strange characters and objects. Most are meant to evoke a laugh and are generally out of bounds in the gallery and museum world, where high art is understood as somber, serious truth-telling.
As Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, summarizes, "He's a little Zach Galifianakis, a little Snuffy Smith, a little Unabomber."
The award-winning documentary ran earlier this year on PBS's Independent Lens documentary series and is currently available at Amazon at a significant discount.
White's enthusiasm and passion for his work is obvious, as we are lead along by his southern-fried drawl, in voice-overs and interviews, through reams of sketchbooks, animation, set designs, sculptures and his Emmy-winning work as a puppeteer and art director on the landmark children's show, Pee Wee's Playhouse (top), for which White contributed the set and character design, including the misbehaving marionette, Randy.
Based on that success, White went on to provide art direction and animation for other children's shows, including Shining Time Station (which starred Ringo Starr, then George Carlin), Beekman's World, and the ill-fated 1997 series, The Weird Al Show, which ran just one season.
White also made puppets and backdrops for stop-action collages used in music videos for heavyweights Peter Gabriel ("Big Time") and the Smashing Pumpkins. White's puppet collage, for the Pumpkins' 1996 video, "Tonight, Tonight" (right), strongly referenced Georges Méliès's 1902 silent film, A Trip to the Moon, and was widely recognized for its whimisical, engrossing art direction.
When his television opportunities ran out, White went through some intense personal struggles. Eventually he went back into his home studio, where he began creating the phrase paintings.
White talks about his working-class roots, and how some of his work is a reaction against that culture and its alpha-male types, such as late president Lyndon B. Johnson. In the film, White constructs a bombastic, giant Johnson head out of cardboard, hot-melt glue and paint for one performance piece (that's the image on the DVD cover, left).
The DVD includes great extras, including three postcard pieces of White's work, a full-screen slide show and the complete uncut medicine show-styled presentation White gives on his career and art-making, which is excerpted in the documentary.
The somewhat esoteric title, Beauty is Embarrassing, is intentionally cryptic and part of the film's narrative arc, and revealing it would be a bit of a spoiler. But it eventually touches on White's understanding of the indirect but intense personal relationship between the artist and audience through a work of art.
White's world, in all its artistic forms, is an infectious collision of inspiration, motivation and never-ending curiosity. Mimi Pond, his wife of 30 years and a successful illustrator and cartoonist herself, perhaps puts it best: "Wayne makes art be cause he has to. I think that's what it comes down to for any artist. It's a compulsion, you have to — you can't not do it."