Visual artist Wayne White talks about Pee Wee's Playhouse and using the F-word in fine art

Categories: Art, Film, Q&A

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Wayne White might be your favorite visual artist of the last few decades that you didn't know existed. But that was sort of the point behind Beauty Is Embarrassing, director Neil Berkeley's the documentary about White's life and career thus far, which will screen at the Denver FilmCenter this Friday, September 21.

"It's like, 'Oh yeah, oh, wow,'" says White in his Chattanooga drawl, describing the general reaction to his body of work. That work first reached a wide public audience when White was brought on as a puppet craftsman for the kitsch-heavy children's television show Pee Wee's Playhouse in the late '80s.

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White's career soared with the Pee Wee stint, earning the artist three Emmy Awards and more opportunities for television work than he could have ever imagined. Becoming an integral part of MTV's aesthetic in the early '90s, White created puppet-driven shorts for the channel's Liquid Television -- a cultural precursor to the Adult Swim era -- of awesomely warped kid stuff for grown-ups.

In the mid-2000s, the now well-known White started his "Word Paintings" series, adding sayings in bright colors to old landscape imagery from thrift stores.These sayings -- "Hotties 24-7," "Human Fuckin Knowledge" -- have become the artist's new trademark, bringing him a fresh audience and us another view of the many humorous sides of Wayne White's cool little world.

In advance of his appearance at this Friday's screening of Beauty Is Embarrassing, White spoke with Westword about the necessity of humor in art, perseverance and his affinity for the F-word.

Westword: You saw your first big break with Pee Wee's Playhouse. Do you know Paul Reubens personally? And did you know who he was before you were brought on to design and create for the show?

Wayne White: Oh, of course. I had followed him for years before that. He got the show because his popularity was peaking at the time -- he had just done Pee Wee's Big Adventure, the movie, Tim Burton's first feature. So I had seen that, along with millions of others, and I had seen him on David Letterman, so I was very familiar with him.

Do you feel like the experience with Pee Wee's Playhouse had an effect on the work you did after the show ended?

It changed my life, drastically -- that was a huge turning point for me. Prior to that, I was a cartoonist and illustrator in New York City; I thought that was going to be my path. But all along, I had been doing my own homemade funky puppet shows on the side, and lo and behold, that became my career.

Especially after doing a high-profile show like Pee Wee's. It opened up all of these new doors in television, and I became known as "the wild and wacky designer." That's why I eventually moved to Los Angeles, to work in television production. It changed everything. That's what allowed me to buy a house and raise two kids, etc.

What is it about Los Angeles that you like, other than the proximity to work?

I love my house -- I love having a house with a big back yard and a swimming pool and a garden. I just love the climate and getting to work at home. I have my own little bubble here in L.A. that I really enjoy. I know L.A. gets a bad rap; a lot of people only think of the traffic or the crassness of Hollywood, which is all true. But I really don't have to confront that anymore. I love my little world here in my home that I've made.


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Sie FilmCenter

2510 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, CO

Category: Film

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