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The Wild and Wonderful World of Pee-Wee's Playhouse Designer, Wayne White

"Halo Amok", by Wayne White
"Halo Amok", by Wayne White

We're standing in an Oklahoma City Museum of Art gallery, caught in the crossfire of three wrong-eyed critters. These puppets are big enough to make us feel miniature. Tugging on their connected gym ropes activates their pulleys, causing the beasts to shuffle and dance. Cobbled out of cardboard, bicycle parts, scrap metal, and styrofoam the enchanting creatures move around, casting even larger shadows loose on the wall.

One of 'em even has a mustache.

This is life inside Halo Amok, the "cubist cowboy rodeo" installation designed and built by Wayne White.

Museum shows like this are what White spent his life pining for. Even back in his early work, doing set and puppet design for Pee-Wee's Playhouse, he says this, the Art World, was always the dream. And that when you reach it, you hit freedom. Freedom to create on your own terms, to do what you think is relevant without the grind of commercialism gumming things up.

Still, White's early work is what got him to this level of mass recognition and what made him the inspirational puppetmaster of a generation.

Wayne on set with Reuben
Wayne on set with Reuben

He infiltrated music videos like the Smashing Pumpkins "Tonight, Tonight". Seeped through the boob tube with Pee-Wee, Beakman's World and Shining Time Station. He even left a comedic spit polish on the New York Times and the Village Voice through his illustrations.

Last year everyone became aware of his persistence thanks to the charmingly shot documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, which shows the artist at work and play from childhood to present. In it you see the Chattanooga-born talent build puppets with his family, address his Southern heritage through youth art programs and please the pants off audiences with his banjo-backed lectures.

But that's a recent change. Most of Wayne's career was spent working "alone in a dark room with art."

Life changed dramatically for him when a Los Angeles gallery began showing his artwork in the early aughts. He'd been experimenting with landscape reinvention, foraging through thrift stores in search of mass-produced paintings. Then, rather than whitewashing the things, he'd incorporate his own ideas into the existing, dated images, corrupting the canvases' initial intents.

By the time he's done, surrealist-styled lettering folds and flies through them, spelling out the quirky Southern colloquialisms that make up his mind's eccentric vocabulary.

Here are a few to make you smile.

"Just a picture/ Shunned by scholars/ Now it costs/10,000 dollars"
"Just a picture/ Shunned by scholars/ Now it costs/10,000 dollars"
"Doin Movie Stars and Paintin Masterpieces"
"Doin Movie Stars and Paintin Masterpieces"
"L.A. You Fuckin Bitch"
"L.A. You Fuckin Bitch"

Reared in Tennessee -- where culture began and ended at the bowling alley -- record albums, comic books and the covers of Rolling Stone became his lifelines. Those bottled messages said if he could only escape the South and get to New York, he could make art for a living.

So, he did. That's where he found his to-be collaborators, like former Dallasite Gary Panter, and his wife, cartoonist and illustrator Mimi Pond (The Valley Girls' Guide to Life, The Simpsons). In fact, early '80s New York was the germination pod that spilled forth his life's most treasured victories.

We've seen a lot of Wayne White around Dallas recently. Beauty is Embarrassing got a 2012 Texas Theatre screening just months after his solo show at (the now-shuttered) Marty Walker Gallery. Currently White's working with local designer Brad Oldham to create a new line of tabletop scaled sculptures based of his text paintings. His installation at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is up until October 6, where White passed through for a recent art talk.

I figured it best to hightail it up to OKC and ask the legendary artist a few things. We sat in a dimly lit conference room and chatted about erasing the line between low- and highbrow, fist-fighting Ed Ruscha, and what it means to make art on your own terms, rather than being someone else's puppet.

Dallas artist Nevada Hill came along on the journey and we tag-teamed the thing.

 

The Wild and Wonderful World of Pee-Wee's Playhouse Designer, Wayne White
Photo by Stephen Berkman

I found out that all of the things you have to do with High Language, you have to do with Low Language as well. -- George Saunders

An artist is nerve endings. -- Wayne White

You're showing a lot in the South. Oh, yeah. For Brad Oldham I'm doing some really fun things. These tabletop-scaled edition [sculptures], about 10 different ones. They're all based on the text paintings, and thanks for reminding me: I really need to call him.

I have all of that going on in Dallas, and then I had a show last year in Virginia and I'm working on a big piece of public art in my hometown of Chattanooga.

Do you have ideas for the public art? Not really. Not yet.

Do you know what kind of physical structure it will be or where you'd like to place it? It'll be a big permanent outdoor piece made of steel; a structure down by Tennessee River. They've got this beautiful riverfront parkway that's just perfect for art. It's really satisfying to go back to the hometown. ... FINALLY. 'Welcome back!' [In a sarcastic voice.] Took 30 years.

How many galleries are you in? I guess three: I've got my home base in L.A., the Western Project Gallery: They're the ones who brought me into the art world, back in 2000.

Was that nerve-wracking? Not at all. No, I loved it. It's the dream. The lifelong dream. And that's any artist's dream: to do their own thing. And supposedly that's what the art world should be about.

That was a really big thing for me -- to get into the art world, because I'd been a commercial artist for 25 years. I was intimidated by it because I didn't think they'd take me seriously because I was like, 'a kiddie show guy' or 'a puppeteer.' But I started doing the word paintings about '98, '99, and Cliff Benjamin (Owner of Western Project Gallery), when he saw them [snap]; it was just like that.

It significantly changed my life.

Knock on wood, I don't have to work in Hollywood anymore. I still do from time to time, but I don't go out pursuing it anymore. I don't need it to sell my work, which is great.

If Wayne White and Ed Ruscha were to get into a boxing match, who would win? And would it be bare-knuckled? It would probably be a conceptual boxing match, with thinly veiled threats. I'd just like to say that I love Ed Ruscha's work, but it would be passive-aggressive like most things in art.

Anybody who puts words in art owes something to Ed Ruscha. There's no way around it: You've gotta go through Him Land, and come out the other side with your own voice. His words, his dry American sense of humor: I appreciate all of it, but I feel like I've staked out my little claim on text.

(Naturally, that's Wayne White's painting in this commercial. Don't miss the sea monster.)

Is the fact that your paintings come from a thrift store important? Pretty much. Well, they could be from anywhere.

Did you ever steal one off a hotel wall? There have been a few times I've been tempted to. Or at least just put the work on there. But then that's giving them a big prize.

I always paint on landscape reproductions, never on originals. That would be a statement about the artist. That would be obliterating something forever. There's too much human smell on the originals. Reproductions are just an empty stage for me to do my thing on.

Your text is entertaining, but you're also doing a lot. I'd like it to be thought of on different levels. Definitely there's art history in there, it's not just a goof. I take it very seriously and I take the skill very seriously, but ultimately I do want it to be funny. I do want the humor. The best comedy is multi-leveled.

The great stand-ups were all very deep: Richard Pryor, George Carlin -- all of those guys. Their humor is hilarious but also moving, intelligent. It hits a lot of notes beyond just the laugh. But the laugh is such an irresistible thing for me: It lets you know that you've communicated.

People discount humor. They think tragedy and suffering and being bummed out is what real intelligence is. But no, man. It's way harder to get a laugh than to bum somebody out.

You're working with all of these different media now. Does one of those forms speak to you more than another, or do they all express different important elements of you? I think they're all equally important and interrelated. They're all the same thing in my mind. A puppet is also a sculpture, a painting is also form: It's space, it's light, it carries those same values.

I make no distinctions, especially when it comes to high and low. That's a barrier that I like to break. I supposedly come from a low place in culture, a hillbilly kid from Tennessee. But it's not. It's all human. I make no distinctions: It's something I feel in my gut.

I always say that artists are not intellectuals. If you're an intellectual, you're not such a great artist. An artist is nerve endings.

If you were to steal another artist's style out of sheer envy, who would it be and why? I'm going to have to say Buster Keaton. I would love to be that guy.

Any reason why? I'm a frustrated filmmaker too. And he's my favorite movie star. He gets across humor with no words; just the power of his physical ideas. The beauty of the way he plays out a gag. The grace that he has. I wish I could translate, and get that kind of energy into a drawing or a painting. I think it would add a lot.

Did having kids change your approach to making art? I've always been obsessed with childhood as most artists are. I think every artist is on some level because it's a time of purity, and that's what art is trying to get at. Pure expression unencumbered by ego ... and these other less-than-noble things we have to deal with as adults.

I think [having kids] reinforced those memories of childhood. It makes you more empathetic to the world. I think it makes you more sensitive.

When you were younger, did you think that you'd change the world through galleries, that you'd be that kind of artist? Or did you have a goal? I never had the idea that I was going to change the world or influence a generation. It was always just a day-to-day encounter with creativity, in the studio, working alone. Just thankful that I was allowed to be creative. Now I'm aware of what's happened. Especially since the movie came out and I've toured around with it.

I've been to 24 cities and I'm still going around meeting people -- thousands and thousands of people this year and they all say how it is. And I did influence a generation, but it never felt like that at the time. It always feels like you're alone in a room with art.

I did know that I needed to be where the action was. I knew that I needed to leave Tennessee and go to the big city. Lucky is really just being ready.

Pee-Wee was the biggest break of my life, and it's why I'm sitting here talking to you. It started that path of reaching millions of people. I owe everything to Paul Reubens who hired me. I owe a lot to Gary Panter.

[Panter's] a good Texas boy. I was hugely influenced by Gary. I knew his work when I was still in art school in Tennessee. Way back before the Internet when it was really hard to get information I first saw his work on Frank Zappa album covers. I thought, 'UGH! That's exactly what I'm trying to do, and this guy's doing it a million times better.'

So I thought: 'This guy's the shit.' You know?

He's one of the first guys I looked up when I got to the Big City. And I knew he worked on Pee-Wee, back when it was a stage show, a culty, insider kinda hipster thing.

Even then I was doing my homemade puppet shows, and little did I know that Gary was doing homemade puppet shows.

So he championed me to Paul Reubens and got me the co-production designer job along with another Texan, a Dallasite, Rick Heismen.

Is that why it was so weird? Because you were all Southerners? Yeah.

Do you think you'll ever shake the South off? No. You can't shake anything off. I've tried to hide from it.

I was an angry young man about the South, and I had to leave. I had a lot of bitterness and resentment, but you forgive as you get older.

You realize that there are things you can't change. And you live long enough that you make all kinds of stupid mistakes yourself, and you forgive the mistakes that you were so angry about that other people made.

Plus I love the South; it's who I am. It's what nurtured and made me. It's also true of art-making. Anything you try as an artist stays with you. It's all in there: cartooning, painting, drawing, set building, puppet making -- it's all there. But those Southern personalities: the buzz cuts, the hunters -- they're always with me.

It's that sense of machismo and idea of what a man is: that mixture of shame and anger.


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