Reporting from Planet Earth: Wayne White
Before being the subject of the critically-acclaimed documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, Wayne White‘s body of work was more widely known than his actual name. The Los Angeles-based artist, art director, cartoonist and illustrator was one of the masterminds behind Pee Wee’s Playhouse; the art director for two seminal music videos, Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight;” as well as the man behind the anthropomorphic bottle Snapple commercials. White’s prolific output of visually vibrant art is the result of joy and discipline going hand-in-hand.
You’ve said, “I’m often as frustrated at the world as most people are. But I think frustration is hilarious. One of my missions is to bring humor into fine art. It’s sacred.” What other things are sacred to you? What other missions are you on or hope to go on?
I guess the real mission I am on is living in the moment; it has a sacred quality to it. This is what making and looking at art teaches us to do: it allows us to meditate and be fully in the moment, which is the way we are fully alive. There are no regrets, no anticipation for the future; you are alive and in the moment, which is a surprisingly hard thing to do. I want to report from planet Earth on what it is like to be alive. This is a very tricky thing to do. We mostly regret, live in the past or live in the future, and get caught within the two, remembering and anticipating. The whole power of art is that it is something made by someone who is fully there and passed it on to other people. By looking at it you get to experience it: “that’s the whole mojo and voodoo.
You’ve escaped Tennessee for New York, and New York for Los Angeles. Much has been written on your love/hate relationship with Los Angeles: “a beautiful place that drives sensitive souls crazy.” The building where the first season of Pee Wee’s Playhouse was filmed in New York is now adjacent to Topshop and Bloomingdale’s. The East Village, where you used to live, is gentrifying fast. How do you remember your time in New York? Is it just a different type of narcissistic culture destroying its creative enclaves for profit? Or is it slightly less evil than Los Angeles?
New York is very very important to me: It is where I got my start as an artist; and where I ventured to the world after leaving my home in the South. It was a very, very different place for me and important as a career-starter and to get into the stream of things. It took me out of my comfort zone; I had never lived anywhere, and it opened up my eyes to other cultures. This is very important for an artist—provincial artists are not good artists. Artists must see fresh, even when it is painful. New York gave me fresh eyes and a fresh point of view. It made me doubt my prejudices. I have lived in three very different worlds, and the most valuable lesson I have learned is that they are all wrong about each other; Tennessee, New York and Los Angeles all have provincial attitudes about each other: even big cities are provincial in that way. This made me a better artist.
The changes in New York are substantial. I lived there from 1981 to 1990. Right now, prices mean Manhattan is off-limits for artists, Brooklyn too. It is great to see how Brooklyn has come along—it is a vibrant place. The traditional stuff about New York: the museums, the schools, the cultural range of people, the whole melting point thing is great. It is a city where everybody observes.
I lived in the East Village in the early 80s, when it was wild and wooly. You did not go past Avenue A at all. Gentrification started in the mid-80s: it is now a nice neighborhood for babies. I witnessed the last gasp of old burn-out crazy East Village, back when the Bowery was still THE BOWERY. I loved every minute of it: as a romantic adventurer, I lived in squalor, which was young and fun to do. During my first four years in New York I had day jobs: short order cook at the Empire Diner; mover; artist’s assistant; caterer’s assistant. I did not hit the ground running, I had to pay my dues. I moved to New York to be an illustrator and a cartoonist: it was the last golden age of the magazine, when they still had sway. It was the last one for printed matter. Art Spiegelman’s Raw Magazine—that was my scene.
I hate the attitude of “The Good Old Days.” No one has missed the scene. Any time you are young and are going for it, that’s the golden age. Conditions may be different, but there is always something great going on. New York is just as beautiful to me as Los Angeles. New York is the greatest city in the world, but I have gotten spoiled by the climate in Los Angeles. I also have a sentimental attachment to Los Angeles; it is the place where my children grew up. The Tennessee landscapes are still my favorite. Experiencing all three of them was luck I had to earn. Most people do not want to take those risks. The artist’s life is a risk-taking life; you take risks always, and that’s what makes you interesting. Playing it safe is not what art is about.
Your work has been called, “Gasoline for the human soul.”You have proven that as raw emotions go, embarrassment can be as powerful as rage and that an artist does not have to be isolated or tortured to be appreciated and successful. Was this a deliberate choice to turn anger and alienation into beauty, and you happen to have the cavalcade of talents to do it? How do you keep yourself grounded and such a joyful ham?
My wife does not agree that I am a joyful guy. I am a lovable cranky bastard. Beauty is Embarrassing is a portrait of me painted by another artist, [director] Neil Berkelely. I am very grateful that I had my story told like that, as a movie is the most effective way of touching other people. But there’s a whole world that is not there.
The idea of the tortured artist is tiresome: being bitter is not attractive at all. Young people think it is cool to be bitter. An angry middle-aged man is not attractive. The main theme of my work is all is vanity and fixation of the spirit as they say in the Bible. The ego is our biggest problem as human beings. You can despair at it or you can laugh at it: You can get at the truth through humor. I dispel the gloom and doom and I use it to tell the truth as an invitation for people to come in and see what I am doing. It is an invitation to the viewer. Fine art tends to be very hermetic, and it defines the viewer. I like to communicate and reach out to the viewer. The whole idea of being depressed is shit: so many people fail because they think it is cool to be depressed. It is horrible and should be avoided. People who have gone through very hard times see humor as the survival technique that it is. It is a very effective way to survive despair, and a sign of intelligence.
You’re a bit of a hoarder,or in fine art terms, a dedicated archivist. One of my favorite scenes in Beauty is Embarrassing is where you are showing the camera crew the artwork from “Big Time” and “Tonight Tonight”—truly beloved objects for a generation that still remembers when MTV showed videos. You’ve also said that your concepts evolve into each other; is this why you want to be immersed in your art?
I am bad at housekeeping. My studio is a wreck. Since I turn trash into art, throwing stuff out is a risk. A few years ago we were candidates for some reality show for people who cannot get a grip on their clutter and they said we were not messy enough. My curatorship could be more serious. I do take care of my flat two dimensional work with flat files. I enjoy being able to pull something and seeing it. I am not wrapped up. My wife and I share a love of crap. That is how the thrift store paintings started happening—thrift stores are an ongoing museum kind of experience. A museum of the now.
After Hugo came out I got a lot of comments about the Georges Meunier connection. He is an incredible visual resource. I took his ideas and made my own version of them and colorized them. I love his crude stage craft; it is very beautiful.
I’m always perplexed when people refer to your word paintings as landscapes. I have always seen them as portraits, especially the more abstract ones. The words seem to have personalities, not just in what they are saying, but in how you write each letter as a character that just happens to be hanging out in this landscape.
I feel the same way. I have always loved letters. I drew them before I could even read, the A was a house, B was fat, and S was a serpent. I saw them as the pictographs they started out as– shorthand drawings of the world. Cartography sees the expressive power of the letter; font puts style to it. The content of the word paintings are what they are saying but in terms of form, I see them as a portrait. The typography matters as much as the content. I love forms; this comes from my years as a sign painter and as a cartoonist. We are really into type.
Fuck You Invasion is inspired by D-day, since war is the ultimate fuck you. I debated on having something come out of the boats, but then I thought the anticipation was more dramatic than actually showing it. I left it participatory like that and took advantage of the dramatic tension. I love history and love reading about war—I like getting that kind of sense into the paintings, an epic sense of something happening. I always think about the interior of the form. I think a lot about the interior of the letters and in my mind, they are hollow. I think about the hollowness of it, and it is very much part of my visual sense. When the word paintings started, they were sitting in the scene, and then they started levitating and swooping through the air. I want to activate the space in any kind of way I can think of.
“Download it now and your pics will instantly be upgraded to a Wayne White style of badass.” Tell me about the Words with Wayne App. Are phone screens the next frontier in art? What did you hope people would do with it?
To be honest with you it was marketing for the movie and the director’s idea. I helped them pick the type and I consulted. I am not an app person. I think it was great, a great piece of promotion. The word paintings have become so ubiquitous, everyone is doing my style. Giant dimensional letters have become a standard and I like to think that I started that, I can say, Fuck it! and let everyone do it. In the meantime I am still figuring out new frontiers. I did not invent them, the Hollywood sign and movie titles have been doing it for years. I just re-popularized them. It is part of my mission to have people do it too. The documentary was showbiz and you might as well go with the showbiz idea. It is a very movie idea. A lot of my paintings are opening titles for non-existing movies. And of course that is the influence of working in Hollywood all those years.
The app is a way of democratizing it. Everybody wants to make a picture, and a lot of people are talked out of it, which is sad. Everybody loves a message. My techniques are difficult; I make it look easy, which is the whole point. But I have 40 years of hard work and discipline and technique.
On 15 June 2012 you tweeted, “Where would I be without my imaginary pals.” Who are they and what are they up to these days?
I had an imaginary playmate as a child. I played with him for 2 or 3 years from 3 to 6. I had to leave him behind when I went to school, but I built a rich world around him. In some form or the other I still gravitate toward imagination. My wife Mimi is a writer, and she does the same thing. We imagine characters in our heads; you see people on the street and you imagine their inner lives. I love language and love to read, that’s why I use words in my paintings. We are big readers. I don’t have imaginary characters any more, but the voices in my paintings are not always my voice, but those of imaginary characters in my head, some character from my southern past or some misinformed idiot. Like the novelist, I take on the voice of other people, including voices of anger that would never seem appropriate for me. That’s where the puppetry comes in too, it is about being able to build one of those characters, hide behind it and talk in his voice. They are all about imaginary characters. It is one of the great fun things to do. Human beings crave a cast of characters, which is why TV and movies are so popular and we admire that craft. They teach us about what it is like to be alive.
What is your Wild Wish?
My wild wish is to do a gigantic public work, something outdoors and big in a major city, that will be enjoyed by generations to come. I want to do a public sculpture in a very epic scale. I love big scale stuff; I like to keep working bigger and bigger. That is one of my wildest art dreams, and I am slowly getting there. I would also like to get a new studio; I still work in a tiny room in my house. While having a house is one of my great achievements, I would love to build the biggest, nicest studio, perhaps in LA.
Originally printed in the COLORS Issue, Summer 2013.