Anyone who spends time with Wayne White — the one-time set designer for Pee-wee's Playhouse who is now an acclaimed puppeteer and fine-art painter – will hear him articulate, in a charming Tennessee drawl, his honest-to-God feelings about the power of words. Swear words. Slang words. Words that are meant to distill long sentiments into short sound bites. White has a habit of using them all — whether in private conversation or his very public art, which is being exhibited in San Francisco under a title that's near and dear to White: "Ass Kicking Contest."
The title and a painting with the same name were inspired, White says, "from an old joke that goes, 'Busier than a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest.' I liked the way it sounded."
Layering his verbiage atop kitschy canvases that act as ironic backdrops, White's has found an art-world audience for his "word paintings." White finds the original paintings in nondescript thrift stores, where the art sits waiting for buyers to marvel at their clichéd imagery. The three-dimensional lettering in "Ass Kicking Contest," for example, sits atop waves, surf, and coastline that practically scream, "This is a cheap hotel painting!" By reworking the scenery with his bon mots, White instills his thrift-store sensibility with a sly postmodernism. Among the other works in Ass Kicking Contest is Tuff Shit, where the two words overlap a farm scene with children and a dog, and Overconfident Men on Horseback, where the four words overlap a woman playing piano.
One of White's funniest older paintings is Sexy Paintings by Sexy Painters for Sexy People, where the letters dance around in mischievous stretches across a pristine lake and hillside. Yes, it looks like some of the letters are cavorting, but it's implied and playful — similar to Paul Reubens' humor in Pee-wee's Playhouse.
"I do think I'm a frustrated writer," White says in the phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "I'd like to write. And I bring that into my work. I think they're well-written. I'll go out on a limb and say they're poems."
More established word painters like Ed Ruscha and Christopher Wool have certainly played their works for a few laughs. Ruscha's 2003 Pay Nothing Until April festoons those words over snow-peaked mountains, while a 1992 work by Wool spells out, in seven lines of block letters without punctuation and spaces, "If you cant take a joke you can get the fuck out my house." Rusha's and Wool's paintings sell in the tens of millions, while White's sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Still, White — who has only been exhibiting seriously for about 10 years — is beginning to catch up to his forebears.
Before his fine-art career took off, White was more focused on making art for TV shows, film productions, and music videos. At the 1996 MTV Music Video Awards, White won "Best Art Direction in a Video" for his clever contributions to the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight," in which the band plays atop clouds as a blimp-like spaceship passes by with passengers. And White earned three Emmys for his work on Pee-wee's Playhouse, for which he designed all the puppets, and provided the voice for Dirty Dog (who was always spouting nonsensical poetry) as well as the red-headed puppet named Randy, who was something of a troublemaker. In the 2012 documentary about White, Beauty Is Embarrassing, Reubens calls White "a true pioneer" and "a person who is never satisfied, always wants to know, 'How do I understand myself more?'"
The "more" is really White exploring the edges of his own humor, just as he did when Reubens was the frontman. Now, White is front and center, with his working banjo, folksy manner, paintbrushes, and wacky puppets. "Ass-Kicking Contest" features giant Civil War soldier puppets that White originally fashioned for a 2014 exhibit in York, Pa. The puppets are interactive, such that people can pull the ropes that make them move.
"They work," White says, "as puppets, and as giant figurative sculptures."
"Ass Kicking Contest" is the inaugural exhibit at Heron Arts, a new SOMA space near Eighth and Harrison streets that was founded by Mark Slee, a former Facebook engineer who now focuses on music and art. With curators Tova Lobatz (formerly of White Walls Gallery) and Noah Antieau (the founder of Red Truck Gallery in New Orleans), Heron Arts plans to invite organizations, artists, and curators without permanent spaces in San Francisco to exhibit in its 3,500-square-foot space, which was formerly a firehouse.
White, who's 57, is exhibiting with his 23-year-old son, Woodrow White, who — even without his father's surname — is an artist worthy of attention. Woodrow White paints surreal and jaggedly funny vistas of strange creatures, as in Visitor, which shows a long-armed alien behind museum glass, and Bigfoot, which has the mythical beast — or, rather, a man in a Bigfoot costume — checking his smartphone with male friends at a campfire.
"Both of us," Woodrow White says, "just want our viewers to have a good time. I've never related to art that's grave and stern. I think art should be like my dad's."
"Ass Kicking Contest" is the first time White and his son have exhibited together. It's also White's first foray in San Francisco – which is curious since his aesthetic seems so perfectly suited for the city's "anything goes" culture.
Why does White think his word paintings have found an audience among gallery-goers? "My sensibility," he says. "My humor. What they're saying is funny. And they work because they're well-painted. They're beautiful paintings, I think."
One painting at a time, one word at a time, White says he's making art that's an extension of his Pee-wee's Playhouse work. During his years working with Reubens, White thought he would become so big that he'd be the next Matt Groening, who created The Simpsons and is now in the uppermost strata of wealth and fame. It didn't happen, but in late middle age, White says he's happy with how everything has turned out.
"Matt was a fellow cartoonist friend of mine, and he was part of our crowd and hit it big, and we thought, 'Why not us?'," White says. "It's the same old story: If you hang with a group of people, one of them gets successful, and you think, 'Why not me, too?' Happens all the time. That's Hollywood. But it didn't happen like that for me and Mimi [Pond, a cartoonist, writer, and also White's wife] – and that's all right. I'm actually lucky it didn't. I probably wouldn't have enjoyed it. I enjoy much more what I'm doing now, being an artist who works in the fine-art world of galleries."
"I like that," he adds.
The finality of those three words say everything about Wayne White's place in the art world.