(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on October 19, 2012.)
Wayne White is a fascinating individual. Having an artistic bent from a very early age, his output has reached far and wide, from art galleries to MTV. Chances are likely that you’ve seen one of his works, even though you may not have known his name or who he was. Known for works ranging from straight-up paintings to oddball television to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight” video to the word paintings which have brought him his notoriety, White has become an oddity in the art world: an entertainer. In the new documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, he says that being an entertainer in the art world is something that gets looked down on with disdain. Intimating that art is supposed to make you think and challenge your worldview, he has taken a “F**k you” approach to his art as far as this notion goes, and instead has made it all right to laugh at art.
For me, documentaries don’t get better than this. Beauty is Embarrassing is extremely uplifting and vulgar, with a lot of laughs and a few somber notes as well. Watching White in this documentary reminds me a lot of author Christopher Moore, whose books I’ve devoured with great relish. Both men have wonderful outlooks on life; they have firmly grasped onto the absurdity that art can engender; and both have at once repudiated and validated human life through their art. Neither are afraid to let the world know what they think of it, and that kind of daring is exactly what art is there to help express. And it doesn’t hurt that a good dose of humorous uses of blue language are dispersed abundantly throughout their works, either.
We see his humble beginnings as a Tennessee native, where his art is simultaneously encouraged by his loving parents and first grade teacher and decried as borderline blasphemy by his school principal. Moving to New York, he soon found himself in the art department of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse; Beauty is Embarrassing takes us behind the scenes at this little show that was set up not in a Hollywood sound stage, but at a former clothing factory in New York City. As a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse fan from the way back, this look inside this part of White’s career was fun and extremely revealing, as I hadn’t known about what went into the set design and the various characters. As Pee-Wee’s Playhouse grew in popularity, the network decided to move production to Hollywood, where White tells us that a lot of the guerilla, DIY feeling from the New York set went away; eventually, Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman) grew tired of it and halted production after the fifth season.
From there, we see the evolution of White from whacked-out set designer and art director to the calmed-down family man he is today. We see what his inspirations are; we see his artistic process; and we see how working feverishly for others nearly drove him crazy. Eventually, he developed his trademark style of inscribing odd sayings over thrift store paintings. Missives like “Heinies and Shooters w/ Hotties at Hooters,” “You’re Just Agreeing With Me, So I’ll Shut Up,” and “I’ll Smash This Painting Over Your F**king Head” blended into serene landscapes make for odd bedfellows, but White makes it work in his own absurd, far-out method. (See lots of examples here. Be warned: colorful language lies ahead.) Always ready to take on the weird, White talks to the camera with insight and a light heart, never letting a dull moment go by. It is because of this documentary’s earnestness, honesty, and humor that I’m calling Beauty is Embarrassing my favorite documentary of 2012.
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