Wayne White Beauty is Embarrassing

“Dick Jokes from Sherman Oaks,” Wayne White

Even in the bottomless pit of the information age, it’s entirely possible for filmmakers to play upon preconceptions about something unfamiliar in order to bolster their arguments and opinions. Case in point: Beauty Is Embarrassing, a competent SXSW-premiered documentary that overstates the accomplishments of the artist Wayne White while also attributing his obscurity to imaginary forces—tactics that take advantage of an assumed ignorance of contemporary art and the politics of the art world.

Wayne White Beauty is Embarrassing

“Richer, Famouser, Handsomer,” Wayne White

The fiction that Beauty Is Embarrassing repeatedly employs is the notion that the art world is deathly serious and therefore has no time for the crass, earthy humor of Wayne White’s aesthetics—even though the film’s title is taken from a piece he did for Art Basel Miami 2009. Though White is best known for his set design and puppet work on The Pee Wee Herman Show (collaborating alongside kindred spirits Gary Panter and Ric Heitzman), director Neil Berkeley spends a great deal of screen time on White’s more recent work: found dime-store landscape paintings on which he writes phrases, e.g., “We Were Partyin At The Lake And This Girl Starts Freakin Out.” These are undoubtedly the least interesting works White produces, but the army of talking heads Berkeley has enlisted to defend them will do so to the death. The sort of pleasure these paintings give is kryptonite to those black turtleneck-wearing art-world types, the experts assure us. The same people claim that, while these pieces bear a passing resemblance to Ed Ruscha’s text paintings, White’s are superior because they have a sense of humor. The work of Jenny Holzer, Mark Flood, Barbara Kruger, and Roy Lichtenstein—or any of the thousands of contemporary artists who work with sardonic, subversive, or filthy text—goes unmentioned. Text, but more importantly humor, is an integral component of pop and postmodern art’s legacy. A walk through a few galleries in Chelsea easily refutes the idea that White’s art is an anomaly—it's part of the norm. (The gargantuan George Jones head White installs at Rice Gallery is in many ways the American soul brother of Takashi Murakami’s “Mr. Pointy.”) 

Wayne White Beauty is Embarrassing George Jones

“Big 'Lectric Fan to Keep Me Cool,” Wayne White

This is certainly not to suggest that White’s work is worthless or unimpressive, but the way it is sold to us is predictable and unclever. Like many documentaries out of SXSW that spotlight obscure artists and musicians, Beauty follows the clique-friendly metanarrative of “You’re lame because you’ve never heard of this person / Let me tell you how they secretly made or influenced everything you ever liked / Now you’re cool because you know who they are.” The most interesting moments, and the ones which most clearly transmit White’s personality, are the glimpses of his home and workshop, a sequence in which he designs and constructs a giant Lyndon B. Johnson puppet head, excerpts from video diaries during his work on Pee Wee, and bits of a PowerPoint lecture he delivers to an auditorium of art students. (A particularly great bon mot White imparted to the students, in reference to a landscape he found: “It’s so beautiful it hurts my feelings.”)

Wayne White Beauty is Embarrassing

Poster for “Rootless,” Wayne White

But the rest of the film is your standard hagiographic glaze, in chronological order: none of the people he grew up around understood what art or artists were; success is neither sustainable nor easy; his wife avows her undying dedication, giving up her career in order to raise their kids. Each stage, though deeply felt, is cheapened with easy chatter. It is tempting to imagine White’s rich life story in the hands of a storyteller as sui generis as the man himself.