Wayne's World

From Pee-wee's Playhouse to art-world star.

One of the following is not the title of a recent artwork by native Tennessean Wayne White:

A) Let's Have a Smirking Contest
B) Dude Starts Freakin'
C) Drop the Country Boy Act
D) Take Your Forms Wrestled from the Void and Get the Hell Out
E) The Rest of My Family Are at Odds with What I'm Doing in the
First Place It's Like, Whatever Whatever Whatever
F) So, It Looks Like You Just Guessed with This One, Yes It Shows, Don't I Get Credit for Risk Taking? No.

The answer is E, but that's exactly how Wayne White describes the attitude of his mystified relatives (including his parents) to the art he makes.

And as for F: The answer isn't no, it's yes, because White's paintings and sculptures do get credit for risk-taking. They're hot-ticket items among collectors of contemporary art, and among the collectors is designer Todd Oldham. The monograph that Oldham and his team have handsomely designed and that AMMO Books has recently published is called Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve. (Which is another Wayne White title.)

You've never heard of Wayne White? You nonetheless probably know his work. He designed (and had a hand in, literally) the puppets (Randy, Cool Cat, Dirty Dog, Chicky Baby, Roger the monster, Mr. Kite, and Cowntess the cow) on Pee-wee's Playhouse, production work that won White three Emmys for art direction. He received an MTV Award for designing Smashing Pumpkins' video for "Tonight, Tonight." He got a Billboard Award for his work on Peter Gabriel's video "Big Time." And in 2006, White's sculpture Yer Supposed to Act All Impressed was exhibited on the plaza of Rockefeller Center. That artwork was text-based: the lettering of the title spelled out large-scale and graduated in size according to the rules of one-point perspective.

But it's White's text-based paintings that are winning him the biggest following. The paintings start with the bucolic scenes of pre-industrial, pastoral, or small-town America, the very definition of kitsch, that you know from thrift or secondhand stores. For White, such scenes act as empty stages just waiting to be filled, given surprise meaning.

White takes those paintings (strictly reproductions, never original art) and over- and underlays the scenes with his own lettering — bold and boldly colored lettering based on an assortment of fonts (and an assortment of single words or lengthy statements, many of them unprintable in this publication) which White renders head-on or throws into tunneling perspectives or bends into barely legible, wildly biomorphic shapes. How does White come up with such statements? He has an eye and ear open.

"I keep a notebook," White says in a phone interview from his home/studio in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children. "Things I read, snippets of conversation, ideas snatched from the air. I think of them as the world's shortest short stories. I consider them a crafted piece of writing, because most of them start as vague, disjointed, or twice as long as they wind up being. So I edit things down, boil things down, try to find the essence, the right sequence of words, just as any writer would. They come from a very writerly place."

White, however, grew up in a less than writerly place: a suburban house and the backyard woods and nearby mountains of East Tennessee — Chattanooga, to be exact. You can read all about that upbringing in Todd Oldham's excellent interview with White in the pages of Wayne White, which covers: White's mother's fixation on Early American home decorating; White's less than stellar high-school career; his own fixation on drawing (especially his outstanding, imaginative hand at cartooning); his college years in the art department at Middle Tennessee State University; and his big move to New York City in 1979 to study under his hero, cartoonist Art Spiegelman.

Other than hooking up with Spiegelman, White hadn't a clue how to handle the Big Apple, and he admits it. But it didn't prevent him from participating in New York's downtown art scene (even as he worked the graveyard shift as a fry-cook). And it didn't prevent him from eventually hooking up with Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman). Production work, commercial art, and illustration served White for a time — served him really well. But his move to Los Angeles taught him a thing or two, chief among them, according to the artist:

"Pee-wee, illustration, cartooning . . . it was fun. It was fulfilling. But doing children's TV got to be limiting. And I discovered that the 'princes of the realm' in Hollywood are the directors. If you don't make it to director, you're always going to be shuffled around. I knew I was never going to make it as a director. I just didn't have the fire in the belly, the ambition. At heart, I was always going to be the guy who drew and painted. So I had to go back to that, because that's what I was about. I wasn't about dealing with actors, producers, meetings all the time. My real happiness was being alone in my studio with a pile of junk, making stuff."

It wasn't long after making some "stuff" (in the late 1990s) that Wayne's thrift-store text paintings earned him the notice he so richly deserves. Today, he's represented in galleries in Los Angeles and New York. And these days, he's doing cardboard sculpture in addition to painting. He's also getting back into figurative art, and "sort of drifting back to puppets."

He's also working on a giant head, lying on its side, asleep, of singer George Jones for a Houston art gallery. And in October, he's scheduled to be at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville to promote Wayne White.

He calls his whole approach to art-making a matter of risk.

"When I started out, I worked without safety nets," White says. "I had no fallbacks, no other skills. It was art or nothing. I've focused on art, and it's paid off. But there's a huge amount of risk-taking."

Did he know that as a New York newcomer?

"No," White says. "But that's another thing: You have to be naive or you'd be too scared to do art. If I'd known the realities, I might have gotten pretty discouraged. But I had a fresh naivete."

He also, through it all, maintained his good Southern manners.

"True!" White says, as if he needed reminding. "I had my good Southern manners."

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