Monday, February 14, 2011

Wayne White: You're Supposed To Act All Impressed

If you've been following along here for a bit, you should already be familiar with the multi-talented Wayne White's monumental wordscapes. Wayne was kind enough to let me interview him last week, despite being in the midst of a series of performances of his one-man stage show, "You're Supposed To Act All Impressed," which you can enjoy every Tuesday in February at Largo in West Hollywood.

Erratic Phenomena: You grew up in the rural Tennessee town of Hixson, in a blue-collar family that valued athletic prowess and hard work. Your father worked in the DuPont nylon factory, and your mother was an avid collector of early Americana who filled your home with colorful, rustic, worn objects imbued with a sense of history. Possessed by a powerful urge for mark-making, you covered every surface within your reach with drawings. Tell me about what excited you most when you were a kid. What was your favorite way to spend a Saturday? Did you ever build contraptions from found objects?

Wayne White: Many things excited me as a kid: Viewmaster images of cartoon character tableaus, hillbilly and Cherokee Indian souvenirs from the Great Smoky Mountains, giant patches of color from the cartoons on drive-in movie screens (especially when you were in the playground right below it), and boxes of cereal.

I loved to play in the woods on Saturdays, and the possibilities were endless — treehouse building, Civil War, World War II, tree climbing, etc. I loved books and movies about wacky inventors and desperately wanted to be one. I tried to build contraptions, but lacked tools, materials and patience. I would do elaborate schematic drawings of contraptions, though, inspired by one of my artist heroes, Al Jaffee of Mad magazine.

EP: Was there someone in particular who nurtured your creative instincts?

Wayne: My mother was my first big encourager and creative mentor. She was an avid interior decorator and antique collector.

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

EP: Growing up in the rural South in the early '60s, you were surrounded by people with very conservative ideas of masculine roles, for whom art as a profession was a very alien idea. Are there any definitive instances you can recall where your artistic pursuits attracted derision? Do you think the resistance you encountered may have paradoxically made you even more defiant and determined to pursue your passion?

Wayne: I learned very soon how to fit my talents into the scene. I drew sports scenes and war scenes. I don’t remember any early derision, because I was desperate to fit in, like most kids, and the drawing worked like a charm. Later, in high school, I went out of my way to provoke and insult with my drawings. I got into many confrontations with Jocks and Populars, too numerous and banal to mention, all stemming from my artwork or writing.

Defiance is the mother of my invention. The resistance did nurture me. The lack of mentors gave me an open field to make it up for myself.

"Boo Fuckin Hoo"

EP: You have a love-hate relationship with the South, which has profoundly colored your life and work. What do you think it is that still holds much of the South in the shadows, and what are the saving graces that redeem the less savory side of Southern culture?

Wayne: The South is mostly small towns. No matter what the region, small towns are dead ends for young people. It’s dumbass regionalism, and the South ain’t alone in those shadows. We invented Rock n Roll, though, so everybody can suck it.

"The Wrong Question-Asker"

EP: When you were a child, hundreds of barns across the Southeast were emblazoned with the words "See Rock City," the work of a single sign painter on a 30-year mission to promote a tourist destination. As a result, you grew up accustomed to the idea of monumental text blocks being inserted into quaint pastoral landscapes. Did the massive graphics of those barn signs resonate for you as a kid, or was it only in retrospect that the memory was imbued with a kind of nostalgic power?

Wayne: My first word painting was a homage to those Rock City letters. I guess that’s a nostalgic-type gesture. As a kid, they were so common, I didn’t even see them after a while. But they stayed in my mind.


EP: The part of Tennessee where you grew up lay across a vast network of limestone caves, and you spent much of your youth exploring them, as well as roughing it in the nearby foothills of Appalachia. Do you think that spending your early years in unsupervised, potentially dangerous exploration was a factor in making you the person you are today? Are today's highly scheduled and electronically entertained children being denied the opportunity to develop creative survival skills that they might need later in life?

Wayne: My freedom to roam and have adventures in the woods and caves is one of my favorite memories. I think and dream about it every day. I make art every day. The two get mixed together in ways I can’t explain. I love the metaphor of the open field and unexplored forest. What kind of metaphors do computers instill?

"We Hid It in the Woods"

EP: One day in college, you were inspired to make a puppet to present a report in an art history class, rather than write a paper. Since then, you have made hundreds of puppets — from Pee-Wee's Randy, Kite and Mr. Flower to one of Peter Gabriel for your "Big Time" video — and even now you're at work on a few new characters. Why is puppet-making so satisfying for you? Are there secrets to making a puppet that people relate to instinctively?

Wayne: Puppets are kind of a mystery to me. Why do I like them so much? I can’t answer that. I guess that mystery keeps me chasing them. There’s some kind of deep evolutionary string being plucked. It all started with the little idols carved by cavemen.

"Drop the Country Boy Act"

EP: Raised on Superman comics and Mad magazine, you spent much of your childhood digging through the comics racks, looking for something interesting. In Nashville in 1980, you came across the first issue of Raw, and it galvanized you into driving to New York and hunting down Raw editor Art Spiegelman at the School of Visual Arts. Taking you under his wing, Spiegelman introduced you to the world of underground comics and exposed you to esoteric influences that you could never have encountered in Tennessee. Tell me about a few of the interesting things that you learned from being around the Raw artists, and how that changed your life.

Wayne: I learned how to draw with a Winsor & Newton watercolor brush and India ink, keep my mouth shut unless I had something funny to say, and keep a killer sketchbook going at all times.


EP: Later, as your interest in cartooning and television waned, you moved to Los Angeles and began to teach yourself traditional oil painting from a book called Light For the Artist. Your earliest paintings were ominous yet slightly subversive Civil War history paintings, suspended somewhere between Mark Tansey and Thomas Cole in the romance of history. But in 1999, the ambiguity of metaphorical expression was wearing thin, and you decided to cut straight to the message by painting it directly into the landscape. With realistic scenery no longer the focus, you were struck with the idea of painting text directly into some cheap landscape lithographs that you had picked up at a thrift store, thinking of reusing their frames. Was there a bit of a learning curve for you in figuring out the best way to match the atmosphere, lighting and patina of the original lithographs? Tell me how your friends responded when they first saw your initial experiments.

Wayne: The technique of the word paintings came to me eerily easy. It was like the painting reproduction was telling me what to do. I believe your materials tell you what they want to do. It’s a dialogue, and the artist is not the supreme dictator. It’s a little voodoo you have to believe in as an artist. My friends responded avidly to my first word paintings. It gave me confidence to continue something I was afraid was going to be seen as a mere prank.

"Doin Movie Stars and Paintin Masterpieces"

EP: Although you lived on the outskirts of the lowbrow scene, and were friends with some of the artists who showed at La Luz de Jesus, you took a different path — exhibiting your earliest wordscapes in the Hollywood hipster cafe Fred 62 — and ironically ended up showing in upscale galleries long before your lowbrow contemporaries cracked that barrier. What kind of resistance did you encounter to your work at first? Was there a particular breakthrough moment that made you realize that you had finally arrived?

Wayne: The first resistance was people dismissing me as a Ruscha wannabe and imitator. He gets his ass kissed HARD in L.A., and you can’t get within smelling range of him, or they’ll release the art hounds. My big breakthrough moment was when I got a review and a big color reproduction of my painting in The New Yorker.

"Beauty's Embarrassin'!"

EP: Would you say that your wordscapes are in part a reaction to the ubiquitous advertising that surrounds us everywhere we go, which inevitably intrudes into our mental landscape?

Wayne: Yes. Our daily visual reality is BIG WORDS IN A LANDSCAPE.

"Fuck You"

EP: One of your most powerful paintings is the wordscape titled "Fuck You," which depicts an endless flotilla of amphibious text blocks beaching themselves in a traditional seascape, and opening doors to disgorge their mysterious contents. Could you tell me about the motivation behind that piece?

Wayne: I like to say “Fuck you”... sigh… so satisfying. It’s like a good sneeze. That painting is really about war and invasion, which is the penultimate “FUCK YOU!”


EP: With lighting, placement and font choices, you've managed to imbue many of your word paintings with a certain emotion or character, as in "Poon," where the word seems to be a bit bashful about being caught out there in the open. Since you were a child, you've had a powerful sense that individual letters have their own personalities, so for you making a word painting must almost be like depicting a cast of characters. I believe this could be regarded as a form of synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon experienced by many artists, in which sounds evoke colors and shapes, or abstractions like numbers and letters have a specific tone or personality. Do you think this relationship with text influences your wordscapes? Are there other ways that these personifications manifest themselves in your life and work?

Wayne: The non-textual, purely abstract form of letters talks to me as much as the actual meaning. This duality is constant, and gives them tension and life. Again, a mystery — when senses mingle and get mixed up, something wonderful happens. You just go with it, like a good buzz. I’m constantly seeking those mixed signals in and out of the studio.

"The Sound of Cutting Slack"

EP: Your love affair with text extends itself to massive word installations and ramshackle word sculptures made of everything from found objects to cast bronze. Does text acquire a different quality for you when it becomes a three-dimensional object, or did you always think of letters as possessing volume? Are there challenges you've encountered in twisting physical lettering to your will that you hadn't anticipated? Is there a delicious frisson in creating a piece in cast bronze that looks like it's made from cardboard?

Wayne: I see the paintings as portraits of three-dimensional objects. I am compelled to bring them into the 3D as sculptures. Sculpture is hard work. You’re physically and mentally wrestling with real, usually resistant, matter. I find it way more exhausting than painting. I love making mighty bronze look like lowly cardboard. It’s one of my themes — low to high, Hixson to Manhattan, thrift store to museum, etc.

"Tennessee Cavewater" (cast bronze)

EP: As a practitioner of text painting — "a sign painter with no boss" — I wonder if you have any thoughts about the artistic value of graffiti.

Wayne: I like well-designed wild style graffiti murals.

"Uh, I'm Looking for the Archaic Cave of the Unconscious"

EP: You live and work in a rambling hill house in Los Feliz with your wife, cartoonist Mimi Pond, and your two children, surrounded by art and handmade things. What is life like in the White household?

Wayne: We play nicely together and try not to nag. We all have art projects going constantly. Our dog Mabel Brown is a joy. Mimi is always cooking something incredibly delicious, two calico cats roam around. It’s great.

EP: Besides being a highly respected alternative cartoonist, Mimi wrote the first episode of The Simpsons and is the author of several books of humor about the pressing issues confronting the modern woman, such as bad hair days and shoe addiction. How do you think living with another artist with a fertile, outlandish imagination has influenced your own creative trajectory?

Wayne: I love having an artist mate. It had to be. Somebody has to run down that road with me. It just has to be.

EP: What was the inspiration for the wraparound landscape you're working on in your dining room?

Wayne: I was inspired by 19th century French scenic wallpaper. It was relief block printed and has a very distinctive crisp, graphic look. I’m struggling with getting it right. It’s taking a long time.

"Human Fuckin Knowledge"

EP: In your first wordscape, "Human Fuckin Knowledge," you took aim at the vanity and ego of Hollywood. While you got your first big break with Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and television has borrowed your ideas from time to time over the years, you have resisted becoming embroiled too deeply in the entertainment world. Given your experiences, what would you like to say to the Hollywood establishment?

Wayne: Thanks for all the money. I wish I was a better team player so I could make some more, but I like doing my own thing overall. I knew the score going in, so I’m not going to whine about Hollywood. It is what it is and will never change. Why should it? Players beware!

"The You Don't Get It and You Never Will Look"

EP: Aside from the advice of friends and mentors like Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter, you are more or less self-taught, having chosen the directions you've headed in through the pure enthusiasm and inspiration of the moment. You've said that making art is all about taking risks, and also that the best way to get better is through competition, practice and constant evolution. We've also spoken about the fact that many of the artists emerging onto the scene today are derivative of Mark Ryden and Robert Williams — and you too have your share of imitators. What would you say to young artists who don't possess an overwhelming internal vision, yet are hoping to break into the gallery world? Is it possible to build a career on gimmicks and imitation?

Wayne: Anything’s possible. I’m constantly surprised. It’s anything goes and who knows? We all start out imitating what we like. You just better grow out of it, or it becomes sad and stupid.


EP: Jean Dubuffet once wrote, “Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it — it runs away as soon as one says its name. What it loves is to go incognito, and its best moments are when it forgets what it is called.” Do you think Dubuffet would have responded to the best examples of the funky pop-culture imagery that has filtered up from underground over the past few decades, in the same way he was drawn to art brut? Does this new school of art have a profound basis, despite the derision it attracts from the cultural arbiters?

Wayne: The problem with making that kind of art is in its very title — faux-naïve. You’re playing like you’re crazy and innocent, and you’re neither. Dubuffet was a classic French snob and aesthete who pulled it off. I’m not sure how. Again — mystery! Most artists attempting this stuff are all proud of their self-imposed ignorance, and it’s foolish.

"You're Just Agreeing With Me So I'll Shut Up"

EP: One of your inspirations is Nashville-born artist Red Grooms, whom you had the opportunity to work for in the early '80s. Like yourself, Grooms has a cartoony, kinetic sensibility, and works in a wild variety of media, from painting to film to immersive sculptural installations. What qualities of his work speak to you most powerfully, and what did you learn from him?

Wayne: Red, as a person, was curious and eager for experience. That comes through in his super-energized art. I learned to drop the cool and aloof bullshit of adolescence and jump into the middle of things and get things going. I saw I could keep one eye on art history, and the other on whatever pleased me. His mixed media installations like “Ruckus Manhattan” were always on my mind when I was designing sets for kids' television. Plus, he was from Tennessee too, which I identified with.

EP: Are there any underappreciated artists working today whom you wish would get more attention?

Wayne: Bill Killebrew in Nashville, Tennessee makes beautiful paintings and should be famous.

EP: If you could hang just one classic painting from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?

Wayne: So many! I can’t choose. I would just get paint on it.


EP: Your autobiographical stage show, "You're Supposed To Act All Impressed," incorporates stories, artwork, puppets, and even interludes on the harmonica and banjo. After trying it out on audiences around the country over the past year, you'll be performing it on your home turf every Tuesday in February, at Largo in West Hollywood. What gave you the idea to put a face on the art, after all these years?

Wayne: When my book came out in 2009, I started doing a lot of book signings and lectures at art schools. I started to craft my speech, and it slowly got better… and funnier. Also, a director, Neil Berkeley, has been following me around making a documentary. He encouraged my hamminess. Before I knew it, he was my stage director and we had created an hour-long show with banjo, puppets and animation that I performed at The Cinefamily Theatre in L.A. in November. It’s now at Largo at the Coronet. Why do it? Because I can! It’s funny and entertaining, so what the hell.

EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Wayne: More art making, love making, beer drinking, dog walking, rose smelling and a new truck.

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