Wayne White’s ecstatically acerbic art and antic, exuberant fuck-it-all philosophy might very well change your life—though odds are they’ve done that already. While you might not know him by name, White has been pulling the strings in the better parts of your brain for decades. He designed most of the puppets for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, invented the iconic visuals of Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” video, introduced a generation to Georges Méliès through the Smashing Pumpkins video “Tonight, Tonight,” and forced fine art to grow a sense of humor with an ongoing series of trenchant “word paintings” that stamp Stonehenge-sized declarations like “Goodlookin People Havin Fun Without You,” “Spose To Do This Spose To Do That Don’t Do Shit,” “Take Your Forms Wrestled From the Void and Get the Hell Out,” and “Human Fuckin Knowledge” across cornball pastorals salvaged from the art bins of L.A. thrift stores. He is a painter, puppeteer, sculptor, and provocateur, a music lover whose work has depicted fellow Southern greats like Elvis and George Jones—the country legend whose head he enshrined in a gigantic sculptural installation in 2009—and graced the covers of Lambchop albums like “Nixon.” White’s friend and fellow text artist Neil Berkeley knew upon meeting him that his story must be told, and the resultant documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing, is both a roadmap to White’s life and a guide to navigating the world on one’s own terms. White and Berkeley discuss turning anger and alienation into beauty, turning White’s life into a stage show and a film, turning downtime on the Pee-Wee’s set into an underground sideshow called “Flocked Box Theatre,” and turning Lyndon Johnson into a giant wearable head that White parades around L.A. This interview by Rin Kelly.
Is there a giant Lyndon Johnson head peering at you right now?
Wayne White: Well, no—I’m upstairs. He lives downstairs, and he does peer at me. He looks over my shoulder as I paint every day.
Are you ever worried he’s gonna come after you in the night?
WW: I’m just worried that he’s gonna pull the Lyndon on me. I’ll wake up in the morning and he’ll be right in my face. Trying to get me to do something for him.
Didn’t he used to hold cabinet meetings in the bathroom?
WW: He did—he would have a meeting sitting on the toilet and would make secretaries take dictation while he sat on the toilet. It was called the ‘Johnson treatment.’ He would violate your personal space and lean right in till you leaned back.
Why did you go with Lyndon Johnson? I saw in the movie you’re reading Master of the Senate? Is there some reason Lyndon Johnson appealed to you as a giant head?
WW: Neil got me reading those Robert Caro books, and I’ve read all four of ’em. And there’s a fifth one coming out. He was on my mind while Neil was filming, and [Neil] asked me and Woody, my son, to do a project together. And I said, ‘Let’s do a giant Lyndon Johnson head.’ Yes, he is appealing because he’s a fascinating character. He’s the best and the worst of people. And he’s such a paradox and such a towering figure in politics. He’s a fascinating character. You can’t get him out of your mind once you start thinking about him.
Which president would you most want to team up with to beat up which other president?
WW: To beat up? I would definitely team up with Lyndon to beat anybody up. Calvin Coolidge.
I would beat up Calvin Coolidge too.
Neil Berkeley: He’s got it coming.
This movie has Wayne standing on a balcony flipping off the world; it has your ‘Fuck You Invasion’ painting; it just has oodles of ‘fuck.’ Why do you say that ‘Fuck You’ is the American dream?
WW: Because it’s based on the principle of fuck you money. That’s what everybody’s going for—to get enough money so they can drop out of the system and relax and be their own boss, be their own man or women. You could say it’s about fuck you money or just boil it down: it’s just about fuck you. That seems to be the American spirit to make enough money in the capitalist system and then fuck it all. Stand alone, the rugged individual. And being a rugged individual is basically saying f-you to everybody. ‘I don’t need you—fuck off.’ In a negative kind of way that is the American dream. And that’s such a hot-button political issue, the idea of independence and altruism and helping other people: ‘No, I’m not gonna help other people, I’m gonna help myself. I’m gonna climb this ladder myself. Fuck all the little losers, the welfare losers.’ It’s sort of like the Ayn Rand thing—selfishness is the ultimate goal of a capitalist moneymaking society. Altruism and social welfare is considered a weakness and a burden on the deserving.
You have a painting called ‘L.A. You Fuckin Bitch.’
WW: Man, I am a bitter asshole.
I am too! What do you want to say to the fucking bitch that is L.A.?
WW: Why are you so vain? Why can’t you lighten up and be more humane? L.A. is a very narcissistic place. And it rewards narcissism, it really does. The image of the actor or the successful director-producer: it’s all about ‘Look at me, look at my clothes, look at my car, look look look. Look what I got! Look what I got! Look what I got!’ It’s a narcissistic culture, and that’s why everybody hates L.A., because they see it as a vain, pompous, self-centered, almost evil place because of that. And you can either really get bummed out about it or you can make fun of it and laugh at it. I’ve been both. I’d rather make fun of it and laugh at it rather than get bummed out about it. You can’t let anything get under your skin like that or it will just ruin you. They don’t care. Being angry at something doesn’t do anything to the thing you’re angry at—it just poisons you. So that’s the value of humor, is being able to dissipate that anger—taking that anger and turning it into a positive. And I do have anger issues. I’ve been angry my whole life. I was a very angry young man; there’s still a lot of that in me, so I use anger as my therapy and as my art form to fight back against all that. And L.A. will get under your skin if you let it, but I laugh back at it. It does have its charms too. I’m sitting here right now looking out my backdoor at my beautiful backyard and my beautiful garden and swimming pool. My children frolicking by the pool. It’s a beautiful place and I’ve come to terms with it. I had to get out of Hollywood production full-time because I thought it was a soul-killing kind of job for an artist. I left it behind. I still work in it now and then, but I’m happy throwing darts at it now.
And your work is a testament to L.A.’s excellent thrift shops.
WW: It has excellent thrift stores. I like St. Vincent de Paul a lot. Salvation Army places are pretty good. Goodwill used to be better.
So there’s not one particular thrift shop in L.A. where you find the best corny old pastoral paintings and tossed-away oddities?
WW: I would say St. Vincent de Paul.
I don’t want to have people going in there buying up all the lithographs.
WW: There’s an endless supply of ’em.
You guys are both from the South originally. What’s a ‘Southern daddy shame ray’? Is it different from other American shame rays?
WW: The Southern daddy shame ray is the look of reproach and judgment from a male authority figure from my childhood. It’s the look that I would get constantly from all my authority figures. And it was usually targeted at me when I was trying to be myself, trying to be creative or exuberant or express some sort of joy in life. The shame ray is like, ‘Settle down, son. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be the strong silent type? Men don’t act like that. Settle down, you’re acting like a damn girl.’ It’s that sense of trying to shame me for being myself. That’s a lingering trauma for me, from my childhood, was never being able to be myself in the South, and that’s why I had to leave the South.
Neil, did you also have a Southern daddy shame ray experience that drove you toward art?
NB: I did. It wasn’t as universal as it was in Wayne’s childhood. There were definitely lots of authority figures. I didn’t quite rebel in the same way Wayne did but it was definitely there.
WW: He’s younger than me. He came along when society was kind of more lax and a little more open. My childhood was in the early and late 60s in the South, which was a very repressive time.
NB: That’s true—but when I was a kid I wanted to be a writer, and it was sort of not condoned, not really pushed, not really stressed that that’s a possibility. The idea of actually making a movie or being in a rock band wasn’t even on my radar. I didn’t even know you could have those jobs. I left Oklahoma when I was 20 years old. I had to go out there and find it out for myself.
Wayne’s work just sits at the center of so much that’s been cool in American culture over the last 30 years. Was Wayne an influence before you ever knew who he was?
NB: Oh yeah. When I met him I immediately went down his resume, and everything I’d been into as a kid, from Pee-Wee’s to Beakman’s to the Pumpkins videos, Peter Gabriel. And then the word paintings: he was pointing it right at me my whole life. And I didn’t know who he was. That was the fascinating thing—when I first met him I realized that this guy has a huge resume, a library full of pop culture icons that people should know about. I’d seen everything he had done, pretty much. He was a huge influence. People ask me what influenced me to make the movie and I always say that it was Wayne that influenced me.
Did Wayne have old tapes of the behind-the-scenes, extra-freaky Pee-Wee’s Playhouse the puppeteers and artists made in their downtime? How did you get those, and what kind of stuff went on in ‘Flocked Box Theatre’?
NB: Wayne has done an amazing job of cataloguing his life. When you go to his house or his studio you see pretty much everything he’s ever touched. It’s all there: all the Pee-Wee’s drawing, all the puppets, the paintings, the sculptures—there’s everything there. And one day I went over there and he had this big box of tapes. And he said, ‘You know, I carried a camera around all those years doing Pee-Wee’s and these are the tapes. There’s some good stuff in here—you should check it out.’ I went through dozens of hours of tape and there was Pee-Wee’s, ‘Flocked Box,’ home videos, stuff back in the South. It was just a wealth of material. And when I saw that, that’s when I realized that we’d really got something good here. No one had seen those Pee-Wee’s videos. They sat in that box for 25, 30 years, whatever it is. And no one saw them. Wayne, you probably didn’t look at them, right?
WW: I hadn’t seen them in twenty years.
NB: Paul Reubens, all those Pee-Wee’s people, none of them had ever seen it. So it’s all being shown to the world for the first time.
WW: ‘Flocked Box Theatre,’ that was reverting back to my origins in puppet shows, in puppet-making, where I would just make these homemade puppet shows in college and after college and show them at galleries and on the street—this kind of guerilla puppet theater. I just reverted back to that. We had lots of downtime. Anybody who’s worked on a film knows there’s lots of downtime because every set-up you have to re-light and block the camera and stuff—that takes hours. So we had a lot of waiting around and that’s what happened: ‘Flocked Box.’
Did you use any of the Pee-Wee’s characters in ‘Flocked Box’? Or was it completely parallel with its own characters?
WW: It was completely parallel with its own characters. They wouldn’t let us take puppets and abuse them like that. We had to be really careful with show puppets. We would’ve broke ’em. That would’ve been funny but the puppets weren’t allowed to leave the set.
Is ‘Big Time’ largely your aesthetic and your imagination? I’ve heard that Peter Gabriel was happy to just let you run wild with it.
WW: He was. That was the great part about that job. He let me just run wild and let my imagination run free. He was open to any interpretation of the song. I always say your job as an artist is to find good bosses—people that will let you do your thing and empower you. And Peter Gabriel was definitely one of those. I have really fond memories of that project because he’s such a gentleman and open-minded, happy collaborator. He didn’t pull the rock star status on me, not once. I just looked at the song and the lyrics sheet and just started drawing imagery spontaneously and improvising. After a while I would have a pile of different images and then I started putting them into a storyboard form. I was also conscious that I was working with all these great clay animators, so I was trying to come up with ideas that would work well in clay—the mountains forming and the rocks and all that. I had a lot of tricks of my own. I love putting heads inside things. I put his head inside that little building. I kept thinking of things that would look great as stop motion animations or as clay animations. And eventually I pulled all the better imagery and made a storyboard, and that’s where we started from.
Music seems like a major part of your life, from banjo playing to Peter Gabriel and Lambchop and your early Elvis illustrations—and the massive George Jones head. What’s the intersection for you between art and music?
WW: Visual art and music are kissing cousins. They’re very much related to each other in terms of creating a mood, creating emotion, a sense of time. A sense of beat—I think everything has a visual beat. They’re parallel; they’re both a metaphor for each other almost. And being from the South also. The South is the hotbed of all the great American musical genres. I was around a lot of bluegrass and country music and rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve done lots of professional musicians in Nashville. Just that Southern angle, too. It’s a very musical place. And who doesn’t like music? We all love it. Music and movies are the quickest way to the human heart. And as a visual artist I’m jealous of music for its emotional power. I sort of use it as a standard for creating emotion. Like most artists, I listen to music while I paint and make sculptures. People love to work to music. It’s just like gasoline for the human soul: fill it up. And I try to use music as a theme, like you said: George Jones, the Elvis stuff. I try to get in there literally as much as I can too. And I love playing the banjo. It helps me think in the studio. Anytime I’m not painting I’ll pick it up and play it, just its rhythms and the sense of timing seems to impart something to me.
The moment in the movie where you’re playing and singing is really beautiful, and it looked absolutely spontaneous.
NB: It was. I was over at Wayne’s house and I had heard Wayne play the banjo many, many, many times, and he had never sung or really hummed. And I needed some banjo for a little piece we were putting together—I just needed him to play a song, I had no plan of shooting it or using it in the movie. I just needed some audio. I used the camera we were shooting with, and as I was recording I said, ‘Are you humming a song?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m humming this song I play.’ I said, ‘Are there words to it?’ ‘Yeah, there’s words—of course there’s words.’ ‘Well play it! Play it for me.’ And so he played it, and I heard the words—and that’s right about the time the story with his dad was starting to come together. And that relationship. And if you listen to the words of that song they parallel that story perfectly, about a guy that leaves home and goes back and watches his parents through a window as they get older. And I knew immediately that that song was going to be in the movie—and then we set it up and shot it right away. It was incredibly spontaneous.
WW: I’m very shy about singing and playing in front of people. I never do it at all, because I’m intimidated.
As a storyteller though—you struck me as a bit of a ham.
WW: I’m totally a ham as far as getting on a stage and telling stories and getting people to laugh. I am a ham. My theory is that all artists are hams. They don’t want to admit it—it’s sort of lacking in dignity and they want to be the great masters. But all artists are needy hams. All art is a form of performance, and I just kind of bring that to the forefront. And if you get me on a stage, something happens. I go into some kind of weird trance and I kind of have this instinct for communicating to a large group of people. Once the energy starts rolling with the audience I’m on a tear. Ask any performer and they’ll tell you the same thing. It is a trance-like state. It’s an amazing experience to entertain a group of people.
I remember that trance-like state from when I did visual art as well.
WW: Performing is a trance-like state, making art is a trance-like state. You get into a zone and you’re not analyzing anymore. You’re just reacting to the moment. It’s sort of that pure living moment that everybody kind of wants to get at. It’s what religion and meditation is all about. It’s the ultimate life on this planet experience: being alive in the moment. Most of the time we’re thinking about the past or the future or we’re worried or we’re distracted. We’re not fully in the moment. That’s what art gives us.
Did you grow up with Kurt Wagner from Lambchop?
WW: I didn’t grow up with him. I met him when I was in my early twenties—about 23 years old—when I moved to Nashville. He was a hardwood floor installer, and I met him because I knew his boss. I knew all these guys that worked at this hardwood flooring business, and Kurt worked there for years. He didn’t really start becoming a musician, a professional musician, until he was in his early 40s, which was an amazing third-act kind of thing.
NB: Is that true?
WW: Yeah! He had a little band on the side. This was after I’d left Tennessee—I kept hearing reports that Kurt had a band. I thought, ‘Well, that’s just a hobby.’ Next thing I knew he was signed on to Merge Records and Lambchop was born. I was so proud for them that he stuck at it all those years and never gave up. His journey is a real lesson for people to never give up on a dream. I’ve done three of their covers—I did a cover called Thriller, of course Nixon, and then I did a double album called Aw Cmon/No You Cmon.
Neil, I once heard the great Al Maysles say, ‘I wouldn’t trust Michael Moore as far as I could throw him.’ He’s not fond of documentary filmmakers who intrude or exploit or mock. Did you model your approach on any particular filmmakers who came before, or does the mutual trust evident in the movie stem from your having known Wayne for a while?
NB: It’s not modeled after any particular movie. It’s certainly not Michael Moore. He’s definitely not an influence. The idea—there is a sort of collaboration. You mentioned earlier that Wayne and I both for our day jobs both work in text. I wanted the movie to look and feel like Wayne’s work. I wanted it to look like something he could do. All the artwork, all the design, animations are from a very tactile, organic, tangible place. I wanted it to look like something that was handmade and drawn. This was all born out of an idea to do a short film where we just animated Wayne’s work. So there definitely was collaboration. Wayne art directed those end credits; he drew most of those characters that you see. My company built and animated it all but he had a heavy hand in all of that.
WW: We were kind of making it up as we went along, and I think that’s one of the strengths of it—it was a natural outgrowth of our relationship and not some agenda. There was no agenda other than to explore my life and be friendly with each other. And see what happened.
That’s actually why I asked about Al Maysles—this movie really is open-hearted and honest toward you in a way that you don’t really see enough in documentaries.
NB: Yeah, you could almost script a Michael Moore doc. He probably does script them before he shoots a frame of footage. But with this, some of the best parts and my favorite parts are those intimate moments in Wayne’s studio where it’s just me and him. There wasn’t a big crew on this. There wasn’t light, there wasn’t sound. It was either me or Chris Bradley holding a camera and pointing it at Wayne. And those are scenes that you couldn’t script—you couldn’t come up with that idea and then go do it. And those are some of my favorite moments.
WW: Most documentaries, I think, are agitprop. They’ve got an agenda and they want to convince you of something. We weren’t trying to convince anybody of anything. We were just trying to just follow me around and see what happened. I think that’s what gives it an authenticity. You can tell it just grew on its own and became what it had to be.
NEIL BERKELEY AND WAYNE WHITE’S BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING IS CURRENTLY PLAYING AT THE SUNDANCE CINEMA, 8000 W. SUNSET BLVD., WEST HOLLYWOOD. BEAUTYISEMBARRASSING.COM.