"Humor is sacred. Without it, we're dead." So says Wayne White, the talented artist who is the subject of Neil Berkeley's documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The film immerses us in White's humor, which he now expresses in "word paintings" – generic thrift-store landscapes on which he paints sardonic non sequitur phrases in tall block letters: "HOTTIES 24-7, "PICASSO'S ASS FALLING OFF," and "LSD" on a traditional painting of hunting dogs.
The Pop Art paintings have made White an unlikely sensation in the fine art world, but he was already a famous for his commercial art. A restlessly creative artist since age 6, he's a sculptor, puppeteer, animator and illustrator best known for his work on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, the psychedelic 1980s Paul Reubens TV show, and as a director of music videos (Peter Gabriel's memorable Big Time and The Smashing Pumpkins' Méliès-inspired Tonight, Tonight). He's not a household name outside the art world, but as fellow artist Matt Groening says, "He's touched people in ways they don't even know."
Framed around a book tour in which White strums his banjo and talks to audiences about his career, the film peers into his personal history. The most revealing segments explore White's background in the Tennessee mountains, where his parents still live. "This place is so beautiful it hurts my feelings," White remarks as he drives through the pastoral hills. The South is an indelible part of his character, and he has a love-hate relationship with its character types – the hard-ass school principal who told him his drawings weren't those of a "red-blooded American boy," or LBJ, whose caricature White fashions into a giant puppet head that he wears while pretending to campaign for Congress.
We meet White's nice parents and learn that his crazy-quilt aesthetic was inspired by his mom's kitschy décor. A car accident that left his mom with a brain injury darkened his worldview, demonstrating "how horrible the world could be." The trauma made him defiant – the word paintings express his general "fuck you" attitude – but he's a rebel without a defined cause.
In college, White fell in with "fellow weirdos," living and breathing art 24/7. In 1980, he moved to New York and married the talented writer/cartoonist Mimi Pond, who gave his life stability. He landed in a professional setting that echoed college – a clubhouse of crazy, gifted artists creating Pee-Wee's Playhouse. "It was a dream job," he says. "Sittin' in a room smokin' weed and drawin' pictures." White and his colleagues worked for peanuts in a cramped downtown Manhattan space; he improvised sets and puppet characters like Dirty Dog and Randy. He worked madly in Hollywood, animating music videos and TV shows, winning Emmys and plunging into nervous depression. He retreated to his studio to do serious painting, but soon began selling his word paintings at a local diner, then in galleries.
Berkeley's perspective is that of an admirer, and the film borders on hagiography. (Mimi, who set aside her own career to raise the couple's children, is described in almost saintly terms.) White is witty, but whether his life merits a feature-length documentary is questionable. After a successful career, he's living contentedly and turning out gimmicky paintings, which no amount of praise by critics and gallerists can persuade us are fine art. The film is, however, a visual feast, elaborately illustrated with White's clever art. It is also valuable as a portrait of a turbulent talent in constant search of its subject.
S creens Friday at 7 p.m., Sunday at 1:30 p.m.