Taking 'Beauty' on a wild ride

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

"Hello, everybody. My name is Wayne White and I make pictures."

Thus, the subject of "Beauty Is Embarrassing" introduces himself. He's standing on a stage with a microphone, talking to a crowd gathered to hear him speak, but now, thanks to this documentary, he's introducing himself to America. It's a statement that's both accurate and a wild understatement.

Chances are you've never heard the name Wayne White, but you've seen his work. He won two Emmy awards in art direction for his work on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" from 1986 to 1990. "I designed most of the puppets on the show," he says -- and he voiced some of them, too. He also worked on "The Weird Al Show," "Beakman's World" and the American version of the children's series "Shining Time Station."

On screen
'Beauty is Embarrassing'
3 out of 4 stars
Stars: Wayne White, Mimi Pond
Director: Neil Berkeley
Rated: Not rated
Running time: 92 minutes

Even more recognizable are the worlds he created for two very different music videos: the claymation of Peter Gabriel's 1986 video for "Big Time" and the 1996 Smashing Pumpkins video "Tonight, Tonight."

"It's been a long, wild ride for me," says the 55-year-old born in Chattanooga, Tenn. But it's not over yet. He notes that conventional wisdom says to "choose one thing and do it well." Screw that, White says, rather more saltily. "I want to try everything I can."

And so White continues to be his own man, as it's clear from this well-crafted documentary that he always has been. Pee-wee himself, Paul Rubens, calls White a "true pioneer," the kind of guy who's "never satisfied" and always asking, "What's the next thing?"

White began his career in New York. "When I left the South, I became a Southerner," he says with irony. "I didn't know I was so Southern until I left." But it's the Los Angeles art world he really wanted to break into, when he began doing his word paintings. He finds cheap art in thrift shops and paints huge words over them. His hybrid work has its fans, but probably just as many detractors.

"In the art world, funny isn't taken seriously," White muses. "Entertainment is a dirty world in the art world. You're not supposed to entertain people. You're supposed to question their core values and make them re-evaluate their lives and give them a deep insight into blah blah blah."

Wayne White is not your stereotypical pretentious modern artist. What makes "Beauty Is Embarrassing," a fine first film from Neil Berkeley, so fascinating is not so much White's unorthodox art. It's his determined individualism and how that conflicts, despite himself, with his very human need for approval. "My earliest memories are of drawing, or of people watching me draw, or reaction to what I drew," he says. "That's why I see art as entertainment."

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
The Washington Examiner