Few people have heard of artist Wayne White but many can recognize his remarkable work. White was a set designer, puppeteer and guiding light for the groundbreaking not-just-for-kids TV show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the director of award-winning music videos for artists like Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel. White currently makes his living mainly as a painter, taking cheesy landscape paintings he finds in thrift stores and adding block-letter phrases like “just a picture/shunned by scholars/now it costs/10,000 dollars.” The resulting works have been accepted by the fine art world even as they lampoon that world, all while convincing observers of every stripe that art and artists have every right to be funny and entertaining.
As seen in Beauty is Embarrassing, a free-spirited documentary tracing White’s life and career, the artist becomes a sort of everyman of fearlessness, a hard-working Southerner transplanted to Los Angeles who always manages to stay true to himself no matter what challenges come his way. It’s easy to identify with White and other Pee-Wee’s Playhouse alumni as they recall what many of them knew would be the best time of their lives, set free to make art disguised as a children’s TV show with none of the limitations that normally accompany a corporate media job. In the hands of first-time director Neil Berkeley, the film also illuminates the long, slow slog most of us go through just to learn how to be ourselves.
The film offers a full immersion in White’s fantastic sculptural creations and in the graphical work of his talented wife Mimi Pond (who also wrote the first episode of The Simpsons). And it’s fascinating to witness White’s uncanny ability to make art out of whatever found objects and household scraps happen to be lying round. Beauty is Embarrassing is an inspiration for creative types who suffer from lingering self-doubt or frequently wonder if it’s all worth the effort — which describes pretty much everyone who makes art.
Beauty is Embarrassing runs through next Thursday, October 4, at Zeitgeist Movies, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. in New Orleans.