Wayne White wasn't worried about being the subject of a film about his life and times.
"I'm a natural born-ham," he says over the phone from L.A. The Tennessee native's endeavours over the past 30 years as a painter, illustrator, puppeteer and set designer add up to one of the most unique careers in American commercial art. After all, how many people who've had their work hung in upscale galleries can also say that they've worked with Pee-Wee Herman and the Smashing Pumpkins? The subject of a 2009 monograph edited by Todd Oldham, White says that he was ready for his close-up: "Like most artists, whether they admit it or not, I do want my work to be known."
Certainly, anybody who sees Neil Berkeley's new documentary Beauty is Embarrassing will leave with a vivid sense of White's cheerful neo-junkyard aesthetic and also his buoyant (if not aggressive) personality. In fact, White's ease in the role of raconteur came with its own set of problems: namely, the fear that he'd do too good a job of playing himself in front of a camera for it to probe beneath the surface. "There was the danger of extreme self-consciousness," says White. "It overcame me a few times during this process. I had to let go of my control-freak side and trust the filmmaker. I tried to practice the artist's golden rule – I wanted to give him the freedom that I would like to have in my own work."
White has a few golden rules as an artist, most of which seem designed to take the shine off of the process – or at least to acknowledge the value of a little rust. "I've always been a handmade, do-it-yourself kind of guy," he says, pointing out that most of his output – from the tactile puppets he designed and operated as one of the creators of Pee-wee's Playhouse to the collection of "word paintings" that overlay irreverent and often profane slogans on old prints – has a second-hand quality. "I've always worn thrift-store clothes and driven used cars. I've always lived in houses where somebody had lived before me. I think that it reflects a continuum, that we're all living overtop of the past. I'm a big history buff. I like to know about the bones I'm walking over."
It's in this same spirit that White thinks of himself as an art historian – as a student of craftsmanship. He's also a bit of watchdog about how art is written about. White admits that good reviews are nice to get, but he's also distrustful of art criticism, even when it's on his side. "I want [my work] to be considered intelligently, but I have a problem with art-critical speak when it's unintelligible. They have this hermetic code that they speak to each other in, and it has nothing to do with the core emotional issues of art. Art can be intellectualized, but I think the artist is always coming from an emotional point."
If there's an emotional centre to Beauty is Embarrassing, it's the relationship between White and his wife Mimi Pond, a talented cartoonist who was also part of one of the biggest pop-cultural phenomena of the 20th century: She wrote the first episode of The Simpsons. "There's a certain amount of competition [between us]," laughs White, "which is an issue you have to struggle with. All artists are competitive. It's the nature of the culture. You need to have an edge or you fall behind. We clash a bit with our artist's egos, but we soldier on."
For his part, he speaks with both assertiveness and humility about his work and its place in the art world. "I believe that there's nothing new under the sun," he says. "We might as well face that truth and deal with the real objects of the world. Everything is built on everything else. The concept of palimpsests is important to me, and so is the idea of recycling, which is a metaphor for the human condition. We're all an accumulation of our experiences,we're all battered and scratched like those old pictures. We all have a history that shows on us."