Wayne White has had the kind of career that would make any artist jealous. In the ‘80s he was one of the founding puppeteers and art directors behind Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and later worked on shows including Beakman’s World and Shining Time Station, thus imprinting his whimsical, lightly subversive visual aesthetic onto the imaginations of an entire generation of Reagan-era TV tots. The ‘90s saw White toiling away in the world of music videos, working with a roster of artists including Peter Gabriel, The Offspring, and Smashing Pumpkins (most notably, the Pumpkins’ seminal “Tonight, Tonight.”) Lately, White has reinvented himself as a serious—and seriously funny—painter and sculptor; his comics-influenced pop surrealism infiltrating the white walls of legitimate art galleries from Houston to Milan. And now, he’s the subject of the excellent new documentary Beauty is Embarrassing.
Outside of his TV work, White is best known for his distinctive “Word Paintings,” a series of humorous non-sequiturs written in big block letters over kitschy, mass-market landscape paintings. These paintings are at once cartoony, epic, and shot through with a satirical sense of humor reminiscent of Raymond Pettibon—yet another serious L.A.-based artist who began his career in low-culture commercialism (in Pettibon’s case, concert posters.) It’s possible you may have even had a hamburger below one of these paintings: they decorate the walls of Los Feliz eatery Fred 62.
If Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of zany artist documentaries, director Neil Berkely’s new film is more akin to Fright Night—a quirky, lighthearted, dashed-off dot of movie. R. Crumb may be darkly iconic, but Wayne White has the market cornered on buoyant likability. Made with White’s full cooperation, Beauty doesn’t entirely escape the fawning fan-flick ghetto, but the film is so enjoyable it’s hard to fault Berkely for his adoring point of view. White’s process doesn’t appear to be driven by any real demons, addiction, or crippling neurosis. If it is, Berkely doesn’t let us see it. Taken at face value, the film is a refreshing reminder that you don’t necessarily have to be a clichéd fuck-up to be creative. The White we meet here is a happy, functional, productive individual. And whatever propulsive quality Beauty looses in its lack of dramatic contrivance is more than made up for by White’s Southern-goofball charm—not to mention the sheer joy of taking a tour through his work.
There’s a reason documentaries about visual artists are some of the most enjoyable nonfiction films to watch. Even when the narrative is weak, these films can make for a helluva slideshow, showcasing a well-curated sampler of the artist’s greatest hits. That’s why films like Tamra Davis’s 2010 Jean-Michel Basquiat survey The Radiant Child remains watchable even as it vies hard for the title of “Most Boring Movie Ever Made About a Heroin-Addicted Graffiti Artist Who Slept with Madonna.” Beauty is much better. But even if it weren’t, White’s work is entertaining enough on its own to fill 90 minutes. White states early in the film that it’s his mission to bring humor into the art world. But not “Art World” funny—real world funny. And it would hard to argue that he hasn’t succeeded.
Beauty is Embarassing is an excellent antidote to the late-summer movie doldrums. White’s sunny attitude and excess of creativity is infectious, and definitely nothing to be embarrassed about.