By Daniel Tidwell
NPT Media Update and NPT Arts Break Contributor
Artist Wayne White took the stage on Wednesday at the Frist Center picking a banjo and sporting a Davy Crockett ensemble, complete with coon skin cap. “My Name is Wayne White and I make pictures!” he declared, opening his inspiring, hilarious and profound lecture about his career as a painter, puppeteer and set designer. White’s talk was part of Nash-Up a series of panel discussions at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts about the future of the creative arts in Nashville. Over the course of the talk, he walked us through 30+ years of his work, both commercial and fine art, and talked in detail about his major influences which include advertising typography, the Confederama, the Incline, View-masters, comic books (Superman was a favorite), R. Crumb, Ralph Steadman, Art Spiegelman and barns with Rock City emblazoned on their roofs.
White grew up outside Chattanooga in the small town of Hixson, Tennessee and cites the region’s tourist industry with its focus on the Civil War as one of his first ideas of the art world. For White, an attraction like the Confederama , with its epic miniature depiction of the Battle of Lookout Mountain, took images of the landscape , heightened it and “made it sexier.” In a similar way, White’s childhood View-Master slides with scenes from Hanna-Barbera cartoons was another kind of technicolor miniature world escape. “The View-Master blew my mind,” said White. “I had no idea that an artist had made those scenes…it was a real world to me…my first memory of art…a peek at a world that I couldn’t quite get to…and a big inspiration.”
White is probably best know for the puppets and sets that he designed for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and music videos for The Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel during the late 1980’s. Today those designs are a part of the collective consciousness of anyone between the ages of 30 and 50. His longings to step into an imaginary world had come true. “Working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse was like making it into the View-Master…I had a job in the View-Master!”
It’s easy to see the huge influence of comics in White’s commercial work. His first big break came in 1986 at NPT (then WDCN) in Nashville on a kid’s music education series called Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose. MCC invited children to sing individually and in groups, to move rhythmically, and to play classroom rhythm instruments. Although only 28 episodes of the show were created, it continued to run on some PBS stations into the early 2000s. White designed and built everything for the show including sets, puppets and table top models. “It was a chance to translate my crazy ass puppet shows into something else,” said White.
Leaving the South for New York City and “stalking Art Spiegelman ” until he was allowed to audit Spiegelman’s class at SVA was a formative experience for White. “I was hot shit in Nashville, but nothing in New York City,” said White. If you want to succeed as an artist then “go somewhere where everyone is better than you…and work harder than everyone else,” advised White.
The artist had further thoughts on leaving home to be an artist in a 2011 interview I wrote for NPT’s blog saying that “I…think it’s important to leave the safety of home and see the world. It makes you a better person and artist. It also helps your spirit to be in a real, not virtual, community of artists. It’s the difference between XBox baseball and real baseball. Get in the game!”
White stressed the key role that improvisation plays in his painting. He is often asked how he chooses the text in paintings to which he replies, “by whatever fits.” Accidents are key to his process—“I go with serendipity… you can’t plan it too much.”
His first word painting—the product of pure accident—was “Human Fucking Knowledge”. White was going to use a frame from a thrift store painting for a new painting, but decided to paint directly on the appropriated image, and an entire oeuvre was born.
White’s paintings received their first widespread exposure when Lambchop used his painting “Nixon” for the cover of their eponymous CD. According to White the album had nothing to do with the painting, yet critics immediately attributed a deeper, song-cycle theme to the album based on the cover art. White came to the conclusion that “a critic is just a guy with a deadline…they don’t know what they are talking about.”
In his heart White is a deeply humanistic artist with a yearning to connect with his audience. “My mission is to bring real humor to the art world…humor is sacred…it’s worthy of fine art.” White went on to say that “being self-deprecating is a quality we should all nurture…it opens the heart…and it’s an invitation to look at art.” For White laughter is a silver bullet that is capable of breaking down the insular boundaries of the art world where art is an inside game for insiders. “Everyone understands a laugh,” said White, “it opens hearts and it’s my invitation to understand my art history.”
In Neil Berkeley’s film Beauty is Embarrassing (which will screen at the Nashville Public Library as part of the NPT co-presented Community Cinema on December 15 and air in January on NPT as part of the Independent Lens series) there is a scene where a critic talks about White’s work and says that at first he was reluctant to acknowledge it as “high art” because it was funny and entertaining. White’s work indeed occupies a unique place in that it appeals to everyman off the street and also to the conceptually snobbish NY or LA gallery patron. White dismisses the snobbish nature of the art world and pokes fun at it—through his Davy Crockett art talk persona and through his ambitions for his work. “There’s also an unspoken economic class distinction” says White. “Most people in high fine arts come from upper middle class or wealthy backgrounds. They have only seen one side of life. I’m a blue collar boy from Hixson, TN who likes Barnett Newman AND Kenny Fucking Powers.”
Near the end of his talk White explained why he thinks that beauty is embarrassing through three points: #1: Beauty produces a feeling of vulnerability in the viewer, and potential tears and therefore a feeling of embarrassment. #2: The most beautiful specimens of humanity such as models or movie stars, for the most part, are assholes: they are embarrassing specimens of humanity. #3: Artists are individuals who make beauty for a living but there’s no way to express that in a way that makes sense to most people. For example, at a cocktail party if someone asks an artist what they do and they respond, “I make beauty,” it just doesn’t work. “It’s embarrassing!”
“You’ve got such a great personality! Do you have any plans to move back to Nashville,” queried one young lecture attendee during White’s Q&A.
“I love visiting Nashville, but have no plans to return right now,” replied White. The question was a silly but genuinely relatable one because White is an artist that one wants to draw close. He has an infectious creativity and a genuine enthusiasm for art making — and he’s not pretentious about his work. He wants to engage viewers while rejecting the art theoretical games played by many contemporary artists.
“I need to thank you,” White said at the end of his talk, “because you let me stand here and show you all my beautiful things and I didn’t get embarrassed once.”