You may not know his name, but you know his work. Pop artist and puppeteer Wayne White was a major creative force behind the Eighties gonzo kiddie show Pee-wee’s Playhouse (we have him to thank for Dirty Dog and Randy, among others). His design work featured prominently in game-changing videos like Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” (he won six MTV Video Music Awards, including one for art direction for the latter Méliès-inspired fantasia). In the Nineties and early Aughts, showcases of his style – a ribald mix of grotesque and burlesque – popped up everywhere from PBS’ Shining Time Station to a Snapple commercial. Burnt out on the Hollywood hamster wheel, White made a midcareer switch to fine art and has found even greater celebrity as a cheeky provocateur, repurposing thrift-store paintings into ingeniously dichotomous works made of dewy landscapes overlaid with four-lettered pronouncements (“Donald Judd Was a Son of a Bitch Wrecked His Train in a Whorehouse Ditch”). In response to critics who call his word paintings jokey, White argues that “humor is sacred,” and this feature-length profile provides ample proof that as an artist and a hillybilly raconteur, Wayne White is goddamn hilarious.
Taking a cue from his subject’s all-you-can-eat approach to genre and medium, first-time documentarian Neil Berkeley exhibits spirited dexterity as he interlaces the film with archival footage; talking-head interviews (Matt Groening, Paul Reubens, White’s wife, graphic novelist and cartoonist Mimi Pond); fly-on-the-wall long watches of White at work and with his family (hovering over his teenage daughter as she paints, he vows, “I’m not gonna say nothin’,” even as the effort to keep mum looks as if it might kill him); excerpts from a one-man multimedia show White put on at Largo, a Los Angeles club; and animated sequences (by Gentleman Scholar and Berkeley’s own design firm, BRKLY) that enliven and deepen the audience’s experience of the narrative, especially as White recounts a childhood car crash that put his mother in a 10-month coma and permanently darkened his own temperament. The film is studded with stirring moments of surprise, as when the camera catches White’s stoic Southern daddy leaking tears of pride or when White corrals a group of grade-school artists to erect a 12-foot-tall puppet homage to their school’s namesake. These moments elevate Beauty Is Embarrassing beyond mere tribute to an undersung artist into a far rarer thing: a glimpse into the galvanizing effect art – good art, bad art, fine art, folk art, or 5th-grader art – can have.