Painter Wayne White’s studio is a surreal artistic wonderland where his works share space with a zeppelin model, a banjo and a pair of large rotating eyes.
Weary of words — the big bright ones he painted onto landscapes — White went to Houston three years ago and returned to his roots as a puppet maker — only on a grander scale. The result was “Big ’Lectric Fan to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep,” an enormous George Jones head that seemed to cycle in and out of slumber and exhaled whiskey breath on passersby at Rice Gallery. It combined equal parts reverence and irreverence, old and new, art and entertainment.
Since Rice Gallery exhibits are temporary installations, the Jones head was dismantled. Today the rotating eyes are the only relics from the work that remain in White’s studio.
For years White created pieces for music videos and other projects without recognition. But recently his word paintings — a series of big, funny, block letter phrases he paints over mid-century mass-produced lithograph landscapes — have brought White overdue attention. A new film about his life and work titled “Beauty Is Embarrassing” has furthered his renown.
“I guess I’m this public figure now, which is really weird,” he says. “It’s something that will probably find its way into my work: ideas about the ironies and absurdities of being a so-called ‘public figure.’ It’s like, ‘Jesus, not me! Please, no!’”
On the surface, Neil Berkeley’s big-hearted “Beauty Is Embarrassing” is a film about White’s long, peculiar career as an artist, cartoonist, puppet designer and art director. The story starts with a young outcast artist in Hixon, Tenn., who drops into a freak culture scene in New York, where he does award-winning work on the TV show “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” followed by much-seen music videos for Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight Tonight."
A frustrating period in Hollywood followed before White started doing the word paintings that made him a lauded figure in an art world he felt needed to loosen up. When he felt boxed in by those paintings he built the giant monument to the country music legend from Beaumont.
Deeper than a biographical charting of an artist’s ups and downs, “Beauty Is Embarrassing” is a moving testament to art and humor as something close to religious faith.
“I guess it seems radical to have art that uses humor,” White says. “It goes against the whole Western tradition of solemn and serious art. Art comes out of the church anyway, and even though modern art reacted against that, it still took up that holiness. It’s about the temple and seriousness, which with curators and critics is like high priesthood. To come into the temple and crack jokes, no, no, no. That won’t do. I got tired of that sanctimonious attitude, and it came easy for me to use humor.
“It’s just a way of truth telling, and if it’s done well and done thoughtfully, humor has many levels, including tragedy. Humor is religion to me. It’s sacred.”
White’s personality sells “Beauty Is Embarrassing” as much as his art does. He remarks that he’s a performer almost as much as a painter. The film captures that, both with White’s commentary as well as footage of a show he performed at a Los Angeles club, that explains both his career and an ethos of creativity that proves uplifting and inspiring.
“That’s the one reaction I get over and over again, people tell me it makes them want to rush home and make something, which is cool,” White says. “But that’s news to me. I never thought I’d inspire people to make art. That would’ve struck me as corny $#!+. I’m a guy who was alone in a room for 25 years with his nose to the grindstone. All of the sudden the door opens, and there’s sunshine pouring in, and there are people waving at me.”
Art and creativity are presented in both large and small scales in “Beauty.” At the most personal level, White is shown building a Lyndon B. Johnson caricature mask with his son. His wife, Mimi Pond, — an acclaimed cartoonist and illustrator — supports White during the lean years. With his more recent success she has been afforded the time to work on her graphic novel, which will be published next year. On the larger scale is the art: the deep reserves of word paintings, a giant puppet he makes with an old friend in Tennessee and, of course, George Jones’ giant head snoring in Houston.
White will return to Houston this week for a screening of “Beauty Is Embarrassing” at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, the first time he’s been back since building the head. It will be among the last stops he makes for the film,” which he’s been traveling to promote for most of the year. The film will find its way to DVD early next year.
“It’s been fun in the moment when I’m there talking to people,” White says. “I’m a performer, so I love to get up and talk and show off. It’s fun to get your ego stroked. The traveling is horrible. Being alone in hotel rooms is depressing. And it’s been a long time out of my studio, which has me out of whack.
“But I try to look at it positively. This touring thing is an art form itself. And hopefully I’ll have fresh eyes when I get back into the studio.”
"Beauty Is Embarrassing"
Featuring Q&A with Wayne White
When: 6:15 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sundance Cinema, 510 Texas
More information: www.cinemaartsociety.org
Also . . .
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 19 and 23, 4 p.m. Nov. 25
Where: 14 Pews, 800 Aurora
More information: www.14pews.org