The first thing you notice about Wayne White in Beauty Is Embarrassing, a documentary about the artist's life and work, is his intense, pale eyes sparkling from sunken sockets in one of the more worn-out, grizzled faces you've ever seen. It gives you the sense that he's been through the wringer. The wringer, as it turns out, is a persisting lack of recognition of this self-taught artist's talent, a lack that more or less ended with the 2010 publication of his book with the designer Todd Oldham, Now Maybe I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve.
As it turns out, we've all been Wayne White fans for years. Remember Pee-Wee's Playhouse? White made and voiced all the puppets. That cool Smashing Pumpkins video with the Georges Méliès-like spaceship and moonscape? The insane look and feel of Beakman's World (ten times better than Bill Nye, by the way)? The Red Grooms-like machine puppets of Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" video? All cardboard, hot glue and paint wrought by Wayne White's restless hands.
White's now well-known in the art world for painting funny, ironic text on top of the pastoral landscapes of thrift-store paintings. Derivative of Ed Ruscha, you say? Well Ruscha never nestled the phrase "Heinies n' shooters w/hotties at Hooters" in block caps into autumnal kitsch so that the letters reflect in a pond. Ruscha wouldn't dare paint Fuck You Invasion, in which rows of White's favorite two-word catchphrase march through waves like forces storming Omaha Beach. White's an original, bitches. Deal with it.
Ultimately, Beauty Is Embarrassing is about how White's ego and identity have changed while weathering a rural Tennessee upbringing, Hollywood success and conflicted art-world aspirations. Plenty of more analytical questions go unasked, like, "Why is there so much latent sexual aggression in your work?" But the White you come away with is the man who tears up when his first-grade teacher randomly arrives at a book signing—a sincere and kind hooligan we all could sure use more of.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A great escape."