The Wild and Wonderful World of Pee-Wee's Playhouse Designer, Wayne White
We're standing in an Oklahoma City Museum of Art gallery, caught in the crossfire of three wrong-eyed critters. These puppets are big enough to make us feel miniature. Tugging on their connected gym ropes activates their pulleys, causing the beasts to shuffle and dance. Cobbled out of cardboard, bicycle parts, scrap metal, and styrofoam the enchanting creatures move around, casting even larger shadows loose on the wall.
"Halo Amok", by Wayne White
One of 'em even has a mustache.
This is life inside Halo Amok, the "cubist cowboy rodeo" installation designed and built by Wayne White.
Museum shows like this are what White spent his life pining for. Even back in his early work, doing set and puppet design for Pee-Wee's Playhouse, he says this, the Art World, was always the dream. And that when you reach it, you hit freedom. Freedom to create on your own terms, to do what you think is relevant without the grind of commercialism gumming things up.
Still, White's early work is what got him to this level of mass recognition and what made him the inspirational puppetmaster of a generation.
He infiltrated music videos like the Smashing Pumpkins "Tonight, Tonight". Seeped through the boob tube with Pee-Wee, Beakman's World and Shining Time Station. He even left a comedic spit polish on the New York Times and the Village Voice through his illustrations.
Wayne on set with Reuben
Last year everyone became aware of his persistence thanks to the charmingly shot documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, which shows the artist at work and play from childhood to present. In it you see the Chattanooga-born talent build puppets with his family, address his Southern heritage through youth art programs and please the pants off audiences with his banjo-backed lectures.
But that's a recent change. Most of Wayne's career was spent working "alone in a dark room with art."
Life changed dramatically for him when a Los Angeles gallery began showing his artwork in the early aughts. He'd been experimenting with landscape reinvention, foraging through thrift stores in search of mass-produced paintings. Then, rather than whitewashing the things, he'd incorporate his own ideas into the existing, dated images, corrupting the canvases' initial intents.
By the time he's done, surrealist-styled lettering folds and flies through them, spelling out the quirky Southern colloquialisms that make up his mind's eccentric vocabulary.
Here are a few to make you smile.
"Just a picture/ Shunned by scholars/ Now it costs/10,000 dollars" "Doin Movie Stars and Paintin Masterpieces" "L.A. You Fuckin Bitch"
Reared in Tennessee -- where culture began and ended at the bowling alley -- record albums, comic books and the covers of Rolling Stone became his lifelines. Those bottled messages said if he could only escape the South and get to New York, he could make art for a living.
So, he did. That's where he found his to-be collaborators, like former Dallasite Gary Panter, and his wife, cartoonist and illustrator Mimi Pond (The Valley Girls' Guide to Life, The Simpsons). In fact, early '80s New York was the germination pod that spilled forth his life's most treasured victories.
We've seen a lot of Wayne White around Dallas recently. Beauty is Embarrassing got a 2012 Texas Theatre screening just months after his solo show at (the now-shuttered) Marty Walker Gallery. Currently White's working with local designer Brad Oldham to create a new line of tabletop scaled sculptures based of his text paintings. His installation at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art is up until October 6, where White passed through for a recent art talk.
I figured it best to hightail it up to OKC and ask the legendary artist a few things. We sat in a dimly lit conference room and chatted about erasing the line between low- and highbrow, fist-fighting Ed Ruscha, and what it means to make art on your own terms, rather than being someone else's puppet.
Dallas artist Nevada Hill came along on the journey and we tag-teamed the thing.