Wayne White may be the most amusing and prolific artist you’ve never heard of.
Director Neil Berkeley’s documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, a whimsical mix of talking heads (like Matt Groening and Todd Oldham) singing White’s praises and the artist’s own animation, may help give deserved attention to White’s work and his way of giving the serious art world a middle finger while finding his place in it.
Born in rural Alabama and trained at a small Tennessee university, White was always drawn to drawing and eventually emboldened his palette to include comics, animation, sculpture, performance art, and puppetry. Fresh out of college with little more than pencils and paper, he gravitated to New York’s Lower East Side where he befriended a group of fellow bohemians who went on to create and design Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, thought by some to be the most forward yet retro kid’s show that ever aired.
Looking back, White – who designed and voiced several of the show’s puppets - recalls that the first year of the series was like an ever-evolving art piece. Yet when the show’s production was moved to Los Angeles, some of White’s joy about the project evaporated (despite his collection of Emmy Awards, one of which he broke). When the plug was pulled on the show, White marketed himself to as wide a swath of the industry as he could, eventually working for MTV and Nickelodeon and crafting various styles of animation in videos for Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel.
Watching White work is a pleasure. In one scene, he and his son start with little more than a cardboard box and wood scraps and, in what looks like a couple hours, create a huge puppet head of President Lyndon Johnson. (For what reason the puppet comes to fruition is unclear, but then that’s how artists make art.) In fact, the whole White family is creative, including daughter Lulu and his wife, Mimi Pond, who wrote the first episode of The Simpsons but put her career on the back burner to raise their kids.
Berkeley also captures White working on his newest obsession, what he calls “word paintings.” He trolls thrift stores looking for bad landscape or hunting prints and paintings and then applies on top of and in and around the images colorful, often profane words and phrases. One intertwines the acronym t “LSD” with two hunting dogs; others finds phrases like “DUDE OR CHICK?” or “Cheap Bastard” juxtaposed atop forests and oceans . A Los Angeles art critic admits in the film he was “too much of a snob” to find White’s work appealing until he admitted that sometimes art can be entertaining without being dismissible.