Last week, a little crowd gathered in Marty Walker’s small gallery space to look at artist Wayne White’s new show there called I Say A Lot of Things. We were fresh from watching a new documentary made by Neil Berkeley about White called Beauty is Embarrassing in which White said a lot of things about his life — from his humble roots in the idyllic mountains of Tennessee, to New York and the genesis of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, to L.A. and the Hollywood television rat race that he fought in and left, finally entering into the current chapter in his life where he stars as a painter of hilarious and socially pointed word paintings. In the film, we come to understand that White’s foray into Art with a capital “A” was a reprieve after decades of grueling it out in the television industry under a number of hats which left him utterly burnt out – deflated and demoralized by pop-culture commerce that moved at a dizzying pace, leaving the artists behind the scenes at odds with the market and their own identities.
So when Wayne White found himself at his breaking point in Beauty is Embarrassing – the point at which he decides to abandon Hollywood and turn to making art to calm himself – we understand that he’s freeing himself from a collaborative machine in favor of working alone in a more thoughtful way. And though he insists in the film that artists are not intellectuals, and that all he’s after as an artist is to make beautiful things that make people laugh, what White ultimately chose by taking up a paintbrush was the life of the mind – the thoughtful and often very private pursuit of conveying an idea that points in multiple directions in a compelling way. He doesn’t have to think about that, but as viewers of his work, we certainly do.
As LA Times art critic David Pagel somewhat reticently admits in the film (is liking Wayne White’s beauty embarrassing?), White’s word paintings, which are all expertly rendered on found landscape prints and lithographs, describe White as a poet with a deep and intelligent satirical wit. What seems like art lite at first, Pagel suggests, is actually something a good deal more provocative, though I’m not sure White himself would ever say as much. I mean, he had no grand aspirations for an “Art” career — he started out by hanging his word paintings in a diner. But people started buying them, and that made people that sell art notice that the paintings were selling, which made Wayne White’s paintings suddenly better (read: worth more) than the diner they were hanging in. So suddenly White’s painted commentaries on high art, kitsch and the brouhaha that surrounds art markets — phrases like (my favorite) “How Hot is This” painted beneath galloping horses or “Can You Fix it So My Stuff Looks Good?” painted across a banal mountain creek – were embedded in the very forums of his dissent – galleries, those arbiters of sophisticated art commodity.
But the irony of placing White’s acerbic paintings in a gallery only added another layer to the intelligence of the work — art by the guy that loathes the art machine, fancy people, fakers, posers and morons on view in front of the very sorts of people he’s deriding. Pretty funny, which is the point, because White believes strongly in the power of comedy, and the necessity of it because – as artists like Charlie Chaplin and Hogarth knew – laughter stands in direct defiance against all the other, less lovely crap that happens on a regular basis. The big heavy things, by the very laws of emotional gravity, will no doubt carry the most weight in life. But through levity we come to understand those things better, and so carry them more easily, and hopefully become better people for it. Wayne White’s harebrained life as a craftsmen and artist defines that sensibility. Throughout the film, his blue-blue eyes are a potent cocktail of sadness and delight.
White’s new paintings on view at Marty Walker shift a little from his typical cheeky phrases that he’s known for. These new ones use longer, more narrative sentences that conjure very distinct images. These didn’t satisfy me as much as the former short phrases whose wit is so far-reaching and open-ended, because these new phrases are much more specific. By giving too much, they don’t give enough to unpack, so they’re not quite as interesting. There is, though, a huge wall mural that takes up the largest wall in the gallery with only four words/phrases: Pot, Cheetos, Dr. Pepper, More Than a Feeling. The words seem to zoom out from the wall, emblazoned in red and hovering over a pastoral landscape, complete with a suburban house and a Maxwell Parrish-like sky. It’s an homage, I suppose, to the cheap frivolity of getting high, followed by the munchies – goofy, adolescent pleasures triumphed here as things that really, really matter. Maybe they really, really do.
top image: film still from Beauty is Embarrassing
Installation image at Marty Walker Gallery, by Clay Grier, 2012, courtesy MWG.