Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wayne White's Monumental Wordscapes

If you were born after 1960, chances are you've encountered the work of Wayne White. From his early days drawing cartoons for The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Raw, to making the puppets and collaborating on the set design for Pee-wee's Playhouse (and voicing Randy, Mr. Kite and Flower), to creating fantastic environments for Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight" videos, Wayne's work has left an indelible mark on the minds of at least one generation.

About a decade ago – after teaching himself traditional oil painting from a book – Wayne started to play around with text, a longtime fascination of his that serendipitously opened the way to a career in the fine art world. You may have seen his revitalized thrift-store lithographs as the cover of Lambchop's album Nixon, or hanging above the booths of East Hollywood eatery Fred 62... or on the walls of Mark Moore Gallery, Clementine Gallery, Western Project or Mireille Mosler Ltd.

"Fuck You"

I've been fortunate enough to know Wayne for the past 10 years. In fact, when I first started buying paintings (albeit peculiar, naïve rummage sale paintings), it was Wayne who encouraged my strange obsession and pointed me in the direction of interesting art sites like Fecal Face. So ever since his new retrospective monograph – a.k.a. art book – came out, I've been really looking forward to sitting down and profiling his work in detail. Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve covers the entirety of Wayne's career, from childhood doodles to his self-published comics, Geedar and Vaga, to puppetmaking and set design, to his early experiments in oil painting and his recent explorations in sculpting with wood, bronze and found materials.

The book was conceived and created by design guru Todd Oldham, who is also a collector of Wayne's monumental wordscapes. Oldham compares Wayne's work to “viewing an old master from another galaxy.” Into bland, sentimental thrift-store landscape lithographs, Wayne inserts masterfully illuminated text-sculptures that integrate into the time-worn fabric of the reproduction seamlessly, adopting the light and shadow patterns required by the geography and perspective of the original work, while also matching the patina that the print has acquired over time. The overall visual effect is grandiose, yet a bit unsettling.

While the phrases themselves are enigmatic and witty, they often seem simultaneously melancholy. Their language runs the gamut between hipster argot and quaint vernacular. Wayne explains, "I still see myself as a Southerner – I still use Southern phrases. The phrases on my paintings are voices of characters that I imagine. Some are me, some are other people, or my parents."

"Boo Fuckin Hoo"

As a result of his new book release, as well as a current installation at Rice University Art Gallery, Wayne's done a bunch of recent interviews for blogs and newspapers all over the country, so rather than bugging him with my own questions, I've scavenged around a bit to assemble a series of quotations from various articles – and also his book – that will give you a good idea of what he's all about. If you'd like to read the original source interviews, just click the link at the beginning of each quotation, and it will take you there.

Wayne is a non-practicing Southerner who was raised in a blue-collar family that valued athletic prowess and hard work. "I grew up in the country north of Chattanooga – a town called Hixson in an area called Middle Valley," he said. "When I was a kid, it was still really pretty rural. My mother was an antiques collector, and she loved to go to junk stores... She would go to these second-hand stores – so the textures all my life were kind of rough, worn, aged, scuffed and scratched. I always related to that more."

Fifty years later, Wayne's work still reflects the ramshackle aesthetic that his mother's love of early Americana engendered. "I think that all artists are very closely linked to their childhood," he said. "You can either get sentimental and maudlin about it, or you can really dig deep and try to find the universal spark that makes childhood so special. In most kids, it's usually drummed out of you by the time you’re 4 or 5. So I try to dig down deep and find the three-year-old and keep that alive in me. It’s clichéd, but if you live long enough, you realize most clichés are true."

"Luv Hurtz"

That three-year-old was a ferociously prolific creator of imaginary creatures and interesting characters. "I made up a guy named Geedar when I was three or four, and played and talked with him all the time," Wayne recalled. "He looked like Roger Maris. He eventually married Momma Geedar, who looked like Edie Adams. I liked creating characters. My real little friends were boring. That’s one of the banal reasons for being creative – to keep yourself entertained. Nothing has changed. I’m still motivated by putting on a little show for myself."

"Nixon" (note the "millhouse" in the background)

As a child, Wayne's ideas would come in such profusion that his parents could barely keep up with him. "They bought me a drawing tablet every week, which I would completely burn through, and they would complain to me, 'We're spending too much money on those tablets,'" said Wayne. "So they started giving me brown grocery bags to draw on, and I drew on those for years. I would just go through every scrap of paper I could find... From the beginning, I would draw on pieces of pale wood and paint on pale rocks... My perfect happiness is improvising with materials and feeling like you're sort of isolated and making the best of it all – but I just gotta be making a picture all the time."

"Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve"

Talking out loud to the Geedars and playing in his own imaginary world, Wayne was sometimes the object of derision from his less inventive peers, which he says left him a bit "thin-skinned." He believes that artists must ferociously protect the side of them that harbors childlike wonder – that artists "are paradoxically the most vulnerable – but it also takes the most guts. I was lucky that art was always encouraged in my life. It was a way, way different culture then. It was the early '60s in the South... it was a very macho sports-oriented culture. There wasn't room at all for art, except for as a rudimentary trick to impress your friends with."

"What'd I Tell Ya?"

As a boy, Wayne was an avid cartoonist, and waited eagerly for new comics to show up at the drugstore each month. "I loved Superman comics, and those were of course all anonymously drawn," he said. "And, of course, the Mad cartoonists – Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Al Jaffee, Dave Berg, Mort Drucker, Sergio Aragonés."

One day in 1980, shortly after he graduated from Middle Tennessee State University, Wayne picked up a copy of Raw. "That was the big life-changing moment for me," he revealed. "That's why I decided to become a cartoonist – like, within a day or two. It was real strong. I was seriously drifting at that time, and that kinda focused me instantly."

"So Long Losers"

"I was inspired to move to New York and become a cartoonist. It was as simple as that," Wayne recalled. "The next thing I know, I’ve parked my 1970 Maverick on 23rd Street and I’m looking for Art Spiegelman at the School of Visual Arts. I find him and show him my not-so-hot comic pages, and he’s nice enough to invite me to sit in on his class. That was the meeting that got me out of the South. I hung around Art’s studio when he let me. He was drawing Maus at the time, and it was a real education just to watch that. He also had an amazing library of every kind of graphic art. It was the wizard’s laboratory, and unlike most of my art teachers, he gave me real practical advice, like drawing with a Winsor & Newton watercolor brush and India ink. I built a whole illustration career on it."

"That's where I really learned to draw, mainly because I was surrounded by people who were better than I was. I was used to being the big fish in a small pond, and all of a sudden I was low man on a pole. That's why I say to students all the time – 'Go somewhere where everybody's better than you. That'll put your ass in gear.'"

"All That Fake Laughin For Nothin"

While he eventually started being able to make a living as an illustrator in New York, Wayne had never stopped building puppets and performing with them, a fascination that he'd first discovered in college. That labor of love eventually led to his being hired to work on perhaps the most groundbreaking show ever made for children – Pee-wee's Playhouse. "We did it for adults," Wayne explained. "It was sort of the kick-off of postmodern programming like that, if you want to give it a label."

"The first season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was produced by a company called Broadcast Arts in New York, and they wanted to do it in Manhattan. So a loft space was found in a building on lower Broadway near Canal Street, and that became the soundstage for the set. We were building a giant, crazy-complicated multi-media chunk of art in an artist’s studio in NYC. It was literally a downtown art project built by painters, sculptors and cartoonists, not a Hollywood factory product, and that’s what gives it edge and power."

"Big Lectric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep"

By 1990, Wayne was starting to get burned out on working in children's television. He and his wife, cartoonist Mimi Pond, moved to Los Angeles, where Wayne's Pee-wee earnings made it possible for them to buy a house. "I left cartooning and puppetry very suddenly, like I always do with nearly everything," he said. "I knew that I was not gonna get the cartooning thing on the road. You can't make any money cartooning, and it takes a lot of energy. It's a really passionate labor of love – ask any alternative cartoonist...

I've always had a love for painting, and in New York I had a steady stream of influence, because I went to the Met nearly every other week. I loved the history of painting, and because of my love of American history, I decided to do a 180° turn – from this cartoony expressionism I had been involved in for years, to doing traditional, realistic American history paintings."

"Tinted Lard"

"I went to a bookstore uptown somewhere and got a book on how to paint realistically. It was called Light For the Artist. I'd never had any training in realistic oil painting, and I really wanted to do it right. All the oil-painting techniques I learned were from this book. I just took it step by step, learning about underpainting and glazes and basic ideas about how to catch light with paint. I was painting in a realistic style and was feeding off a romantic vision that I had as a kid of the Southern past – like Civil War battles and steamboats coming up the river, George Washington, and just classic, corny Davy Crockett fighting a bear... Mostly I was looking at old guys, like Winslow Homer and Frederick Church and Thomas Cole... So for four or five years, I was just looking at those paintings and getting my technique going."


Once he had learned the basics of traditional oil painting, Wayne began to focus in on exactly what he needed to express. "I wanted to get at some kind of psychology behind it," he recalled. "I wanted to picture the pain and the weirdness and the craziness of the era... I wanted to capture it in mood and lighting, but it was all still vague, and that's what made me pause and think about the idea of concept and art. It's easy to hide behind vagueness in art. There's a lot of wishy-washy ambiguity going on as far as concepts go, and I didn't want to be wishy-washy. I wanted to nail it."

"Your Ego, My Ego"

"I had gotten my technique down pretty good, and I was doing these landscapes and had gotten surrealist with them – like wolfmen were fighting in the woods now, but it was still painted like Winslow Homer. Eventually I felt it was kind of corny... So I decided the ego and human vanity were gonna be my ongoing topics. In Hollywood, I rubbed up against every type of ego there was, and just saw embarrassing displays of vanity and narcissism. I tried to see the humor in it, but it was kind of like the veil falling away from my eyes...

My first painting was called 'Human Fuckin Knowledge.' Mankind thinks they know everything."

"Human Fuckin Knowledge"

Incidentally, Wayne has described a lifelong emotional and sensory relationship with text that recalls the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia, the "sixth sense" experienced by many artists – most famously the abstract visionary Wassily Kandinsky. "I've been hypnotized by letters since I was a kid, even before I could read," Wayne revealed. "I saw every letter as a character. They all had different personalities to me, and I used to draw pictures with letters. They were nonsensical, I just used them as visual motifs... I loved my W's, of course, 'cause I'm W.W.W. – Wayne Wilkes White. I always liked B's, they're very feminine. Those were girls, always. S's, of course, were men. I don't know why – maybe it's the penis. I loved E's, because that was like a kid.
A's are houses...

I love letters and still look at it as I did as a kid. They still have a certain character to me, and they have a voice that I sort of hear – like the plain-type stuff is very deadpan and straight-ahead, and the humor with that is that it's saying all kinds of outrageous things in this deadpan voice."

"Eastern Fuckit"

"Lithographs were big in the '60s through the '70s—they would usually sell them with couches in department stores. I was hoarding them for the frames... One day, I decided to put some words in the middle of the woods I was painting, and then I thought, 'Hmmm. What would happen if I just used this ready-made landscape?' It’s sort of a lesson in the value of spontaneity – and kind of a defiant gesture toward the idea of what’s original and what’s not."

Though Wayne is quite skillful at drawing in Adobe Illustrator, he doesn't previsualize his paintings digitally. "I draw on tracing paper over the landscapes," he revealed. "It's always improvised. Sometimes it's simple, and sometimes a gnarled mess. I'm a sign painter with no boss."

"Beauty's Embarrassin'!"

Despite the fact that he appropriates these insipid, nostalgic reproductions without compunction, Wayne is nonetheless quite respectful of the source images. "I think of the reproductions that I use as an empty stage. I only paint on reproductions. Real paintings have too much human smell, and it would be a 'comment' on that artist… In a way, I’m collaborating with the artist who painted the original of the reproduction," Wayne explained. "The way I see it, they’re like one stop away from the garbage can when I find them – they’re cheap and devalued. The reprisal or the rebirth is an element to the work."

Of course, there are tens of thousands of these landscape lithographs knocking around church rummage sales and junk shops these days, many of them duplicates of one another. In fact, Wayne has become something of a student of this genre over the years. "I do respect the work, because I used to paint just like that," he says. "There are 3 or 4 names that dominate it, and I paint on the same image a lot."

"Doin Movie Stars and Paintin Masterpieces"

Though the art intelligentsia invariably bring up Ed Ruscha when reviewing Wayne's work, he never considered Ruscha when he was first contemplating the word paintings. Instead, he recalled the huge block letters that shouted over the countryside of his childhood in Tennessee. "See Rock City" was emblazoned on the sides and roofs of hundreds of barns all over the southeast – exhortations painted by a single sign painter on a 30-year mission to promote a tourist destination. Later, after college, Wayne had a job painting the billboard on the roof of the children's museum in Nashville. And then he moved to New York, where advertising was a way of life. "We're so surrounded by giant words," he says. "Our whole world is landscapes full of giant words."

"His Bad Attitude Was Just Fine With Everyone"

"Bringing together the high stuff and the low stuff, the so-called disparate elements... has definitely been one of my missions," Wayne admitted. "There can be real human depth to the lowest kind of art form. And that was a lesson I learned as a cartoonist, you know – or as a kids’ show designer or a video set director – there’s a depth in everything, as long as you are sincere in your efforts."

"That's the hallmark of a compelling image – the tension resulting from all these different meanings."

"Drop the Country Boy Act"

Wayne feels the word paintings "hit a sort of collective unconscious for viewers who have grown up with the imagery. There's an immediate flip-flop in the viewer's mind. 'Oh, I know that – no, I don't know that, I know that – it's weird, now it's new, what's going on?' That was a big breakthrough for me. I started showing them at a little restaurant here in my neighborhood called Fred 62, because I had no confidence at all about approaching galleries. Having been in Hollywood so long, I considered myself a pariah as far as the art world we're in. So I thought, 'Maybe I'll just test the waters at this coffee shop,' and they were nice enough to let me hang them up. Right away, people started buying them, and I couldn't keep them on the walls."

"The Sound of Cutting Slack"

These days, Wayne's exhibitions increasingly incorporate sculpture and large installations. "I’ve always worked in sculpture in some form," he says. "Puppets and sets are sculptures. I see my paintings as pictures of sculpture. Thinking about 3-D forms is constant with me. Making sculpture is hard work. It makes painting seem easy sometimes – like taking off the ankle weights."

"I am always scavenging. I love it when people throw out old stepladders – I love to use those as bases for sculptures. I am always on the lookout for interesting bases. Stepladders, little tables, crazy stuff like that – gold. That’s related to the paintings again – found objects. I am attracted to low-tech stuff that’s had a life. I think that’s the perfect metaphor for the human condition, scuffed-up stuff. I don’t like new and shiny stuff."

"Tennessee Cavewater" (cast bronze)

"I think all art should start on the basis of trial and error," concluded Wayne. "I like that tension of trial and error that comes through in the final image. Nothing too polished. I want the anxiety of the struggle to be somewhat in there. To have a few loose flaps flapping in the wind. It's like music, you know. I like music that's a little rough around the edges, the harmonies slightly sour, stuff that's a little ramshackle, clanky. I can identify with that...

My real happiness was being alone in my studio with a pile of junk and making stuff... So I just decided to follow what I loved to do, instead of trying to be in show business... Here's the thing – you have to sit yourself down and ask yourself, 'What do I really love to do?' Instead of what you think other people want you to do, or where you think the big money is. You have to strip away that other stuff and ask the big questions. Most people don't want to do that. Most people are in really bad traps... But basically it's all about risk-taking. That's what art is. It's a slap in the face of human security. I've taken those risks, and they've so far paid off."

The fun-filled 384-page retrospective, Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, is available wherever fine books are sold – while supplies last.

"Southern Daddy Shame Ray"


zoe said...

fascinating article! gave me a great perspective for my day, thanks :)

that first painting, "fuck you," is really something--bit of a twist on the original beach scene, and definitely a brand new way to present storming the beach.

scott belcastro said...

Love it !!

scott belcastro said...

love it!!

scott belcastro said...

Love it !!!