The name Wayne White may not ring a bell, but chances are you’re familiar with his work. The Tennessee-born artist was one of the set designers and lead puppeteers on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Ditto for the Saturday morning science series “Beakman’s World.” He directed the animated music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” as well as the George Méliès-inspired video for The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight.” He was also the man responsible for that nutty Old Spice ad campaign starring Bruce Campbell. Nowadays—in a fitting twist of fate—he’s known mostly as a fine artist. Given his colorful history, it’s surprising it’s taken this long for someone to give the man the biographical documentary treatment he so richly deserves.
Beauty is Embarrassing is a creative, colorful and ultimately uplifting portrait of the artist as madman, creative genius and merry prankster. As its backbone, the film uses a series of college lectures White gave about his life and his art. This is a smart starting move. White is a natural-born entertainer—what with his commanding personality and ever-present banjo. Throw in a few animated sequences, a handful of interviews and the world’s largest George Jones head, and you’ll emerge with a fairly complete picture of the man and his oeuvre.
The work of White’s that people remember most fondly, of course, is the mad sets and inventive puppets of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” White’s bygone days slaving away behind the scenes of the cult TV series are well-covered. Paul Reubens himself is here to sing White’s praises (along with other celebrity admirers like Matt Groening and Mark Mothersbaugh).
What stands out most, though, is the work no one ever saw. Every second the cameras weren’t rolling on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” White and his overworked cohorts (including underground cartoonist Gary Panter) were busy shooting their own show-within-a-show. An experimental, avant garde puppet theater was constructed underneath the set and populated with countless scrap-built characters. Hidden under the floorboards and behind the walls was a madcap narrative no one ever saw. Clearly there is no off switch on White’s creativity.
Lately, though, he’s become something of a controversial figure in the art world. With his Hollywood days far behind him, White’s bread and butter is a series of “word” paintings in which he takes old, thrift store landscapes and covers the canvases with ironic, often dirty, verbiage. (“Fuck it!” being his favorite expression in both life and art.) The problem with White’s work—from a high-toned art world perspective, anyway—is that it has a sense of humor. Not just a wry, editorial sense of humor, either. But a bold, laugh-out-loud sense of absurdity. Why, for example, is this well-regarded artist capering around L.A. in a giant Lyndon B. Johnson mask? What’s he trying to say? Nothing, really. It’s just damn amusing. Initially, critics were offended by White’s fine art work. Now, his word paintings command thousands of dollars, and nobody’s sure what to think.
To some, White’s approach—cheerfully poking holes in the pretensions of modern art—may lack a certain reverence. For his part, White couldn’t care less. He’s just having fun. This hoi polloi attitude represents the film’s most lasting impression. Whether he’s building towering puppets out of cardboard in his back yard or selling trendy paintings in an exclusive Los Angeles gallery, White is addicted to art. He can’t not do it. Give him a canvas and some oils, and he’ll paint. Give him some sticks and a bunch of old wire, and he’ll make marionettes. It’s all art to him. So there’s your inspirational moral: Make art, have fun, don’t stop.
Beauty is Embarrassing is no formal examination of art. It’s not about technique. Like most folk artists, White makes art out of whatever’s at hand. It isn’t about the history of art. Sure, there are occasional dadaist references in his work. Yes, some critics compare his style to that of seminal L.A. Pop Artist Edward Ruscha. (White’s response: “Fuck Ruscha!”) The man at the center of this film isn’t some name-dropping historian. He’s just a good-old, foul-mouthed, banjo-plucking Southern boy who likes to laugh and make art. A happy, well-adjusted, successful artist? That may well be the most transgressive element in White’s career. And more power to him.