Wayne White returns to Chattanooga, with humor and sass intact
The art and personality of Chattanooga-born artist Wayne White embrace the South while being piercingly critical, in an ongoing conflict that often guides his work, magnified by a unflinching sense of humor. Take for example his word paintings—meticulously oil-painted 3-D words on “found landscape” reproductions—with titles like Heinies n’ Shooters w/ Hotties at Hooters, We Were Partyin at the Lake and This Girl Starts Freakin Out, Pillbilly and Drop the Country Boy Act.
Raised in Hixson before attending Middle Tennessee State University in the ’70s for his art education, White had to find his success outside the South, primarily in Los Angeles (where he currently resides) and NYC—having built a reputation with his Emmy award-winning set design for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and art direction for Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins music videos—but his affinity for his hometown is undeniable.
“I love that Chattanooga has changed,” said White via email. “It’s healthy. There is a good-natured quality to this place that I can’t describe. I hear it in the voices and I see it in the landscape.”
The art landscape of Chattanooga has evolved dramatically in the last half-century, and as White returns to Chattanooga to be the keynote speaker of the annual creative conference TopCon, at Track 29 on November 14, he has some advice for young Southern artists.
“Don’t be so proud of your origins,” said White. “Travel the world and live somewhere else for awhile and then look at the South. It will still be beautiful, and you’ll be able to see it even better.”
White’s remarkable trajectory took off post-college after he discovered the legendary underground comics anthology RAW at a bookstore in Nashville and drove to New York to find Art Spiegelman, the co-editor of RAW. Living in NYC, he immersed himself in the scene as a cartoonist, illustrator and puppeteer, but he jumped at the opportunity to do art and set design on the Nashville children’s TV show Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose in 1985. From the strength of his work on that show, he was hired for Pee-wee’s Playhouse in 1986.
Although some may not view things like puppets or children’s TV shows as serious art, White stresses that artists should hold themselves to high standards when it comes to rigor and craft.
“Craft is essential,” said White. “Different crafts go in and out of fashion in the art world. But you got to have your game together, whichever way the wind blows. Be in tune and play in time!”
In 2009, White’s enormous body of work was documented in the 384-page smirkingly-titled monograph Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, and his reputation grew even further with the release of the acclaimed 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing about his life and career, directed by Neil Berkeley.
One of the key points White makes in Beauty Is Embarrassing is that humor has every right to exist in the world of fine art, and it’s become a personal mission of White’s to show the value of humor and entertainment as human expressions that can be as genuine as any other.
“People love humor, but people who write art history are stiffs,” said White, after being asked why the current state of art seems less receptive toward humor than certain past movements, such as Dada and pop art. “What are you going to do?”
White believes that wisdom can be found in humor and that art doesn’t necessarily have to be mired in depth and metaphors, with his own word paintings favoring a down-to-earth pithy bluntness—“real world funny” rather than “art world funny.”
“Stop trying to be meaningful,” said White, regarding the best piece of criticism he ever received. “I told myself that.”
For his appearance at TopCon, White will present his stage show, which is an hour-long monologue about his life and how he became an artist, with his Tennessee accent intact and even some banjo-playing; the presentation is more akin to a stanw-up comic performance than a stuffy, academic lecture.
“I’ve been doing [the stage show] on the road for three years, and it’s always a little different each time,” said White. “I try to connect with the audience as an actor would. I’m trying to get you to feel something. Anything!”
Wayne White at TopCon
Saturday, 5 p.m.
1300 Market St.
Chattanooga Choo Choo