Dialogue: Iconic Artist Wayne White on Creating the Art You Grew Up With and His Buzzed-About Doc 'Beauty is Embarrassing'

Dialogue: Iconic Artist Wayne White on Creating the Art You Grew Up With and His Buzzed-About Doc 'Beauty is Embarrassing'

Mar 23, 2012

South by Southwest combines all the arts with a film, music and interactive festival. Wayne White added the gallery art world to the mix. A film about White’s art, Beauty is Embarrassing, played in competition at the festival. This overlapped with an exhibition of White’s art at Domy Books. While in Austin with the film, White held a book signing of his compilation Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve. The gallery runs until April 19.

So who is this Wayne White who’s so prolific? Well, you’d know his work from creating the puppets of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and animation for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” video and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.” White also paints landscapes filled with giant letters stating provocative humorous expressions. One of the expressions is “Beauty is embarrassing,” which White explains in the film.

The film, by director Neil Berkeley, is really a showcase for White. At one of his gallery shows, he rails against the art world for dismissing humorous art like his. Behind the scenes we get to visit White’s studio and see his old scraps and designs, and in interviews he shares frustrating memories of the MTV music video awards and other industry setbacks. A large segment of the film is behind the scenes video from Playhouse that White shot on VHS in the ‘80s. Paul Reubens and other collaborators also give interviews. White elaborated on his anecdotes from the film in an interview after a screening at the SXSW Satellite venue, the Alamo Drafthouse Village theater.

Movies.com: I really appreciate your take on the importance of humor. Are we seeing that bleed into politics now where shows like The Daily Show and Colbert Report are real news?

Wayne White: I think we are starting to value humor as a truth telling device, yeah. Not starting, it’s always been valued as that, but I think the baby boomer generation has a natural kind of ironic approach to life that’s reflected in those kind of shows. I think that’s the value of doing humorous news. It’s a way of getting at the truth of events.

Movies.com: Some people don’t like to analyze and articulate humor. Do you enjoy studying the craft of it?

WW: That’s the paradox of humor. You can’t analyze it too much or it falls apart. Humor is a very instinctual thing and it doesn’t survive under deconstruction. But at the same time, you have to have a very disciplined analytical approach to it to figure out what is funny, so it’s a strange kind of balance. I don’t try to understand it intellectually. I go with my gut.

Movies.com: It’s interesting to hear the modern art world is so against comedy, yet they think a series of lines or drips is deep?

WW: Well, this is not news. This is not a news flash but there’s a lot of pretension in the art world. It’s all because it’s such a bureaucratic setup. People go into art school, then they graduate, then they go to graduate school and they get brainwashed. They forget what their gut is telling them. They forget about everyday common sense. They pride themselves on being hothouse flowers and it’s goddamn irritating. Yeah! You know, I rant about the art world a lot but the paradox about me is I do like those drips on canvas. I do like those minimal lines. I understand them. I understand nearly any kind of artistic creation. I’m not trying to put it down because I think it’s like oh, my three-year-old can do that. I don’t have that attitude at all. I have a very sophisticated eye. I know all about art history. I’m an art lover but there’s an element there that I hate and that’s the pretension of it all. It’s just drilled into you by the institutions that promote and teach art. I’m here to straddle the line between real life common sense and highfalutin aesthetics.

Movies.com: I can relate as a film writer. Some editors want film reviews to be strict, so they all end up the same.

WW: Right, there’s so many stale institutional ideas in art that need to be kicked over, that need to be burnt down, that need to be smashed into pieces. That’s the spirit of art. Not upholding some kind of holy aesthetic. There’s nothing holy. The only thing holy is the human spirit.

Movies.com: I think the notion of a movie review is absurd anyway so I want to have fun with it.

WW: Lester Bangs did the same thing in music criticism. There’s always some interesting critic around that defies the system and writes in his own voice and doesn’t worry about, like I said, the institutionalized aesthetics of it all.

Movies.com: I can relate to you saving your wood scraps because I save my notes. We’re not hoarders, are we?

WW: All creators have a fetish for their material. That’s just it. You get attached to your materials. They speak to you. How can you throw something away that’s speaking to you?

Movies.com: Do you like Terry Gilliam’s art and animation?

WW: Yeah, I enjoy it a lot. It was a big influence on me actually when I was in high school. I loved Monty Python and that English humor made a huge impact in the ‘70s through Monty Python. Their sense of absurdity is a big influence on me.

Movies.com: Do Americans have a hard time with absurdity? Do they want everything explained?

WW: Yes, they do.  

Movies.com: Why is that?

WW: Again, it’s a double edged sword. All my strong opinions can be debated. That can be debated too because I say I want to bring common sense into art, well too much common sense ruins the recipe. Americans just have a little bit too much common sense. They don’t know how to let their hair down and play. That’s what it is, it’s playing. Playing is where as a child most people forget that spirit. That’s where absurdity comes from, the sense of just letting your mind and spirit wander at will.

Movies.com: You see it in movies too. Foreign cinema like Hong Kong and Bollywood is just crazy for no reason. American movies always have some explanation for any unreal element in them.

WW: That’s because they’re not artists. The people who make those decisions aren’t artists. They’re managers and producers and money men.

Movies.com: Well, audiences decide a lot of it too.

WW: Yeah, and they’re not artists either. The artist is king. F*** everybody else. Let’s face it, the norm is literal mindedness and that’s what the artist is there to smash.

Movies.com: Why were the MTV Music Video Awards such a bad experience for you?

WW: [Laughs] It was like going back to high school. The most narcissistic people in the world, rock stars and rock critics and rock hanger onners and rock star asskissers, that’s the most miserable group of people I’ve ever been around in my life. They are the most self-centered. It was a narcissistic bacchanal. I resent narcissism. I really do. I was put in my place. “Oh, you’re just an art director. Go over there and sit at the art director table.” It was like being back in high school. That’s what Hollywood is, a big high school full of snobs.

Movies.com: You couldn’t have fun with an irreverent take on it just for a night?

WW: I tried to have fun at first and then as the night wore on it just ground my spirit into dust.

Movies.com: Was that a good time for art in the music industry at least?

WW: It definitely was and I was lucky enough to be around in the peak years of rock videos when they were a really vital art form. I was in New York at the time. We made [“Big Time”] in ’87. That’s the luck of my timing and the zeitgeist that I was in. That was a great time for videos. I still think there are good videos going and I think they’re a great vehicle for animators now. Of course the internet makes them all the more accessible but that was a great experience, “Big Time,” because Peter Gabriel was such a great guy. I can say that. They’re not all monsters. He had impeccable English manners, perfect gentleman and he respected artists. He let me do what I wanted to do.

Movies.com: Do you get to be involved in any of the new Pee-Wee Herman projects, the stage show or the movie?

WW: I’m still a friend with Paul Reubens. I designed the horse for his latest Broadway play, Cowboy Curtis’s horse, so I keep my hand in a little with Paul. He’s always calling me asking me for advice on this or that, but I don’t really want to get back into the Pee Wee World because I’ve already done that.

Movies.com: Well, the stage show incorporated all the Playhouse characters.

WW: Yes, they reproduced all our original creations and I consulted a bit on that. I consulted with the Randy guy. I even consulted with the guy who did Randy’s voice. I kind of voice coached him on that because I was the original Randy, but I had no real desire to jump back into the Pee Wee world. It’s the classic been there, done that, thing.

Movies.com: Had you just saved all the behind-the-scenes video?

WW: Yeah. I’d never even shown that to anybody. That was fresh out of the box.

Movies.com: The original stage show was for adults. Were you involved with adapting it for all ages?

WW: The show had to be modulated from the original Roxy theater L.A. stage show. That’s where he first became famous. That was the first HBO comedy special, all that. That was a very much double entendre adult show. So we had to figure out how to bring it to a kids’ level but still keep that context too. There was still lots of double entendre but it couldn’t be quite as up front. I would say that was more of the writers’ tasks than mine. I was the visual guy.

Movies.com: Are we losing puppets to all of this CGI art now?

WW: I think things come and go. People will always want to see real puppets. I think there’s something primal about puppets. I think puppeteering was one of the first forms of performance and one of the first kinds of art making. I can just imagine cavemen picking up a stick and making it into a figure. There’s something elemental about puppets that people will always want to see. So just like people still want to see live music, they still want to smell the human scent.

Movies.com: That’s reassuring because I worry about the reliance on computers.

WW: I do too. I think computers can be pretty cold.

Movies.com: Or that the artists working on them are lazy and not pushing themselves.

WW: True, computers have been great. I’m not anti-CGI at all but it’s in the hands of a lot of hacks, true.

Movies.com: Where do you find your line between irreverence and outright cynicism?

WW: [Laughs] That’s a difficult line to tow because I don't know how I do it. You’re right, it could easily tip over into bitterness and black heartedness and cynicism. Again, it’s one of those instinctive things. I just know when I’m going too far, I know when I’m being too negative. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I have to have my wife tell me. I can lapse into meanness and bitterness, I can. That’s me confessing. I’m just human. I do flirt with the negative. The negative is funny but you’ve got to handle it carefully because it can curdle on you. It curdles on me all the time. Failure is always there and it’s always going to be there, but I think this film has sort of been a kind of lesson for me, learning how to be a better person. I see the best of Wayne up there on the screen. That’s the greatest hits. Most of the time I’m not like that. I’m not that cool. So when I see the ideal Wayne on the screen, it inspires me. I want to be more like that guy.

Movies.com: If beauty is embarrassing, do you think beautiful women are embarrassed?

WW: [Laughs] I’m embarrassed by the arrogant behavior of beautiful people. That’s another one of my explanations why beauty is embarrassing. When you see a supermodel of either sex and they’re going around with this entitlement, this arrogance and this cruelty towards other people just because they were lucky enough to be born beautiful, that embarrasses me to be alive. That embarrasses me to be a human being to see somebody in that state, to see somebody so wrapped up in themselves. That’s one of the big themes of my life is battling narcissism. It’s poison.

 

Movies.com: I still remember American Beauty which said there’s beauty everywhere.

WW: That’s true too if you really have the eye for it, if you’re sensitive enough for it. But if you’re that sensitive, it’s embarrassing in this culture because people are going to kick your ass and call you a p*ssy and a queer and a misfit and why don’t you get it together? So in that sense, beauty is a risk in this culture. We scoff at it. We call you the artiste or the sissy boy or the pansy. We’re still a frontier culture in a lot of ways that doesn’t have room for just the sweet contemplation of what’s beautiful or just the insights of seeing beauty all around you. Everything is beautiful. Everything is, absolutely. It’s a miracle we’re here and alive.

Movies.com: Does the connectedness of everyone through technology make it easier to find likeminded people to share that appreciation?

WW: I think it is. I think that’s one of the great positive things of technology, that it is easier to reach out and find people like that. I think that’s what makes me happiest about the new technologies is that it unites people.

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