"I've been living a new way of life that I love so. But I can see the clouds are gath'ring..." -- country music king George Jones
"Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people." -- Carl Jung
"I know you are, but what am I?" -- Pee-Wee Herman
"What do you mean you've never heard of George Jones?!?!," he disbelieved. I feared that my lunch with Wayne White was off to a shaky start. But over the next few hours, a lanky, grizzled tale of comic-book bravado, progressive puppetry, cosmic serendipity, and accidental genius emerged from the contretemps. In his baritone delivery one senses the cadence and avuncular menace of his Tennessee accent, but filtered through decades spent hanging around east coast art schools and west coast sound stages. "Radical change is the theme of my life!" White's big adventure is a long and winding road that brought a young, sparklingly fearless, and impulsively inspired teenager from the Bible Belt Mountains of Tennessee, to the underground art studios and experimental theaters of New York's Lower East Side, thence into the TVs and hearts of strange American children and even stranger adults, and finally to a late-blooming career as a proper fine artist based in Los Angeles, where he lives with his family, and appears to be happy.
The only thing that might make him happier would be if he never had to make another "big word painting" again. Everyone loves the wit and of-the-moment whimsy of those paintings; their jaunty hipness is like Ed Ruscha beating the crap out of Thomas Kinkead. But there's a downside to having a hit. "Philip Guston is one of my heroes," White remarks. "Having the courage to change direction. In fact there's a major painting [in his recent show at Western Project] called Phil, in homage." It's one of the meatiest works there, all thick painterly line-work and a wrestling match between color and taste, and completely text-free. "It's like when Bob Dylan played electric guitar at the Philadelphia Folk Festival." That's a salient point, considering White played banjo in Tennessee, where he grew up; and in fact he still does, for example at the riotous puppet shows in the gallery and this past Spring's acclaimed one-man show at Largo in Los Angeles. The point is, there were no "big word paintings" in the show. And despite several weekends of riotous, visceral, surrealist puppet shows during its run, "People are still asking, 'Where are all the word paintings?' I knew it was going to happen but it still makes me mad."
White is no stranger to the gilded cage of popular success. But he's also got a penchant for dropping everything and hitting the tangent road. He was taking art classes at Middle Tennessee State in the early-mid 70s, and one day saw a copy of Raw Magazine and it was like a light bulb exploded in a shower of shiny sharp holy shit. He got in his car and drove to New York City. "I found SVA where Art Spiegelman was teaching, waited for him outside on 23rd Street and walked right up to him and announced myself. Lord knows what he must have thought, some mountain man stalking him, who knows, but he let me sit in on his classes, it was a secret. I think everyone thought I was a student. He'd let me help him around the studio, eyes open, mouth shut. He had a library of German Expressionist comics that very few people if any had seen outside of Germany at that pre-internet time. I watched him draw the first MAUS. That was my grad school. I got help from Kaz, Gary Panter, Charles Burns -- they were all better than me. I lived there for six years, but I never stopped doing my silly-ass puppet shows." As fate would have it, it was Pee-Wee's 1979 programs on HBO that rekindled White's genuine enthusiasm about doing a fake kid's show for grown-up insomniac degenerates, with puppets of course. Then Pee-Wee's Big Adventure came out in 1985 ("still Tim Burton's best movie"), and in 1986 they moved the TV show back to NYC, CBS picked it up, and White was invited interview at the production offices of Broadcast Arts. "I guess Prudence Fenton liked the puppets, because she hired me on the spot. So that was it, I had a career in legitimate television. I was a designer and a performer on the show, unions, triple days, wild success, no time for anything else. By the time my son was born in 1992 (and daughter in 1995) I had dropped being an artist altogether."
Carl Jung: A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them.
Pee-Wee: I bought this pen exactly one hour before my bike was stolen. Why? What's the significance? I DON'T KNOW!
George Jones: You can shut out the world. But you always have to stop, and the world is always waiting when you do.
"When the show ended, I went for radical change, again. I got big white-walled art studio downtown and I taught myself classical painting. Eakins, Homer, I made Civil War history paintings without a hint of irony. I just wanted to see if I could do it. People thought I'd lost my mind. And in 1999, I sort of did. I had this painting of an 18th-century barn, and, you know how farms will paint their roofs for identification, whatever, well I just took the white paint and scrawled "Human Fuckin' Knowledge" on the roof. I had been collecting all these crappy Americana pastoral landscapes for the frames, and I had this one spontaneous thought -- a goof really -- but then everyone wanted it. Sometimes you don't know what you've got. At first I had no confidence to approach the fine art world. I was selling these paintings at Fred 62 (a hipster diner near his home in Los Feliz), they were flying off the walls for like $800. On the suggestion of a friend I sent some slides to Cliff Benjamint. I didn't even include a return address. I think they called every "W. White" in the LA phone book until they found me. I couldn't believe it."
The May 2011 show at Benjamin's Western Project in Culver City represented a breakthrough for White -- not so much because of the work he is making "now," but more because, while he insists this is the kind of work he's been making his whole life, it wasn't until recently that he was comfortable and inspired to show it publicly. And yes, we have no word paintings. But we do have puppets; glorious, quirky, anthropomorphized architectural puppets with patient, labor-intensive craftsmanship and a dose of creep-factor. "The puppets, they have baggage." The paintings and drawings were like nothing his fans expected -- warm, sketchy, vibrato blossomings with a vital hand tempered by cartoonishness; a kind of Saul Steinberg meets Frances Picabia stimulation with hypnotic variations on an Outsider urgency. The paintings and drawings have a certain medieval finesses; they are guileless but not naive, with the feeling of being unmediated, and unselfconscious. While not as immediately apparent as with the virtuosity and rapier wit of the famous word paintings, this work shares with those pastoral Tartuffes the foundation of innocence, both personal and cultural, as a jumping off point, and searching for the truth from there. Only the young and the dreaming seem comfortable with paradox and nonsense, but White is trying to fix that. "This is how I draw all the time, this show is my default position. That's why the sketchbooks and drawings were included, that is the seed of it all, a thing in flux. The relics of what I've been through."
Carl Jung: All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination. If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool.
Pee-Wee Herman: There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand. You don't wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
George Jones: There are questions I'm still not wise enough to answer, just wise enough to no longer ask.