When THE OA caught up with the artist Wayne White, he was in the last phases of a “word installation,” a ninety-foot banner that will drape the façade of the Wolfsonian Design Museum (www.wolfsonian.org), one of the showcases of the Art Basel extravaganza in Miami, Florida, in December. The word installation is part of a new phase of work, evolving from a body of landscape painting—bold, architectural phrases (obnoxious, enigmatic, hilarious) sewn into cheeky thrift store landscapes—that feel, in their attitude and technical brilliance, like he has simply knocked over the gauntlet that lesser artists have picked up and plunked down again. The installation is just one of several big shows that have followed on the heels of his first monograph, MAYBE NOW I’LL GET THE RESPECT I SO RICHLY DESERVE, published by Ammo Books, and edited by designer Todd Oldham.
Oldham had been collecting White’s paintings for several years by the time he called him up in the summer of 2007 and suggested they publish a book together. Wayne fits into the small canon of books Oldham has published, keeping company with the filmmaker John Waters and the illustrator Charlie Harper—a company drawn together, Oldham says, by artistic originality. “Wayne’s work casts a unique shadow,” Oldham says. “There’s this immediate hook of familiarity—an immediate cellular response to the scale and form and epic corniness of these backgrounds. But what sends your brain spinning is his total understanding of proper, fine art paintings. The things are painted like Tintorreto’s. It’s just a weird skill-set that man has, and he somehow manages to use all of his weird skills to maximum.”
Residing now in Los Angeles, the Chattanooga-born painter has amassed a wild body of work, from set and puppet designs for THE PEE-WEE HERMAN SHOW to production design for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” video, to the mesmerizing phrase-in-landscapes, and to more abstract works. Nearly all of it has been packed into this heavy, satisfying, exhausting book, which, by all accounts, is being very well received (by both art and book lovers), and which was, as Art Basel prepared to launch, the subject of our conversation with him.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: So the book has been getting great press, a great response from the public. Obviously having someone like Todd Oldham behind it gives it a lot of firepower. What’s it done for you as an artist?
Wayne White: Well, it’s definitely one of those life-changing events, for sure. It’s one of those turns, you know, like the first time I got hired to do network television, or the first time I got into a gallery, or the first time I went to New York. It’s one of those Big Ones.
THE OA: Does the romance of a first book have anything to do with that feeling?
WW: That’s one aspect of it, the romance of the dream-come-true. It’s the kind of thing artists dream of, a book like this. But it’s also because of the validation it gives. I was at a gallery opening the other night, and all I had to do was say, ‘Have you seen my book?’ (laughs) and then they could just go and look up the book. That’s all I had to do! No more empty bragging. Just real Clint Eastwood-like, you know—“Have you seen my book? Okay, then…next.” You can really cut to the chase. It does your talkin’ for you, sort of.
THE OA: Do you sense a new audience? Are different people coming around to your work?
WW: It’s not like a torrent or anything, but it has definitely changed the feel of things. I got a job at Rice University, where I did a George Jones head sculpture. They saw my show in New York, and the book was there, and I think it prompted that. At the Southern Festival of Books there was a lot of attention from a lot of people who had never even heard of me before. So, yes, I’m still being introduced to people, I’m being introduced to people in a whole new way. It’s brought an audience to me that I didn’t have before. People who love books, who read. A lot of people who didn’t know much about art, I’ve been getting to meet them, too.
THE OA: You mentioned that it’s life changing. Does that also mean that you live a little more comfortably and move away from the struggles of a painter?
WW: I wish it were that simple, but it’s still a struggle. It’s slowly getting better—yes, I’ll risk saying that. I can feel things changing, and see them changing.
THE OA: Well, I ask because not every artist who publishes a monograph gets to turn a corner.
WW: No, and I’m still wondering how this all happened myself. It’s still kind of surprising to me. I am finding it a little harder to get my work done, a little bit.
THE OA: What’s changed about your work habits?
WW: Well, since the summer, I’ve been on the road a lot—in Houston for a month, putting together the Rice University installation, then San Francisco for a weekend doing a live stage-show thing. Then I went to Tennessee for a week and did three or four book signings. I’ve been doing a lot of lectures—my little slideshow lecture, I’ve done it about eight times in three months. So I’ve been out there presenting myself, and talking about myself a lot, which is kind of weird. There’s been a spate of promotional stuff that’s made it hard to settle in.
THE OA: Which goes along with the game being changed.
WW: Yeah. Oh, and there’s a guy making a documentary about me (laughs). A guy named Neil Berkeley. He’s been following me around with a camera, and I’ve been sitting there being interviewed, talking about the past a lot. I’ve been telling the same stories over and over again, trying to find a way to make them interesting. It’s exhausting in a way I didn’t expect. It’s real…tiring to think about the past and talk about it, and remember (laughs): Rememb’rin’s hard! But it’s still kind of fun to talk about it. My ego is still big enough that I’m not shy about it.
THE OA: The Past is a big theme for you. Are there any of the anxieties or insecurities of the past that have been answered by your success? You say you keep revisiting the past, and that it isn’t all that fun, but you’re looking back with some nice victories along the way.
WW: It is interesting to see my story sort of becoming a story, the whole history/myth thing. I think it has eased some of the pain of the past—well, not pain, exactly, but the struggle of a working-class kid trying to be an artist. But there are also new anxieties rising, especially because of this documentary. Neil will go and ask people if they want to talk on camera, and some people say yes, some say no, and that’s kind of a weird test of your past.
THE OA: Has the attention and praise created some new anxiety in the studio?
WW: No, because I’ve always felt that. I’ve always felt the anxiety of work. That’s nothing new. But it does take a lot of energy to present yourself to people, to talk about yourself to people. You’re always kind of standing apart while you’re doing it, watching yourself, going, ‘Okay, don’t be an asshole. All right, don’t start becoming a character, don’t play the Southern thing too hard.’ I’m monitoring myself. I want to play it cool, you know?
THE OA: How much of a hand did you have in the book?
WW: Hardly any—I’d say zilch, really. I might have looked at some roughs a couple of times. I just left it in Todd’s hands, totally.
THE OA: It looks as if Oldham goes very deep into the archives, back to your illustration and cartooning days. There are plenty of sketches, lots of trial-and-error and feeling out of ideas. He mined a lot of very deep material.
WW: All the way to 1985, from an Elvis sketchbook I was keeping. I was illustrating a book called ELVIS FOR BEGINNERS, and the book, I’m afraid to say, is not very good, but it was a big job for me at the time as an illustrator. I was doing this style in brush-and-ink. I was very much under the influence of the raw cartoonists: Gary Panter and these French guys—and German Expressionism, more than anything else, I think. And I was very influenced at the time by Art Spiegelman and the stuff I’d discover in his studio, where I’d hang around and help out. I was looking at his library of all these German graphic magazines, like SIMPLICISSIMUS. His library was definitely an eye-opener, all the graphic guys he collected—Heinrich Kley, Alfred Kubin, and George Grosz, and tons of artists that you never would know of, that history doesn’t talk about that much.
THE OA: I’m looking at one of these sketches, at this mean-looking Minnie Pearl. The hard lines, the disarming, quirky little old lady I remember.
WW: That’s from another sketchbook, called NASHVILLE, which was country-music themed. I was doing that one while I was doing MRS. CABOBBLE’S CABOOSE—my first kids’ show, for a local PBS station in Nashville—and I found a bunch of old country-music magazines at a flea market and I was drawing pictures from those.
THE OA: Did you have any reservations about handing over the early work? Stuff you may have parted ways with, artistically?
WW: Not really. At first, he thought he was just going to do the paintings, the art-world days, and he came over and I started showing him the commercial work, the early stuff, and right away he decided to double the size of the book. And it was great, because I felt like that early work should have been seen. I felt that way for years.
THE OA: You often hear the opposite, that an artist leaves early phases behind him. But you thought the opposite, that it’s finally getting an audience it long deserved—
WW: Yeah, because I have a huge archive of drawings and paintings from the television days, and the magazine days, and nobody ever sees that stuff. Nobody ever sees the drawings for a TV show, and many times that’s the best part of the whole project. I carefully saved that stuff over the years. So, in a way, this was a vindication for saving it, knowing that it was going to go somewhere.
THE OA: You mentioned the graphic artists, and Spiegelman, and your own Geedar comics are included in here—
WW: Yeah, those I drew mostly on the set of PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE, sitting around waiting while they set up the shot, the lighting, during all the downtime. I had a big mailing list, and I would mail these little comics out to people. That was my last big project in comics....
THE OA: How important was the influence of comics on your work?
WW: Well, comics were a combination of drawing and writing, and I’m still doing a combination of painting and writing. So it’s the melding of the visual and the literary. Plus, it sort of was great training in what I do now, in getting the phrases just so, because you have to be real concise and clear when you’re deciding what goes in that little word bubble—’cause you only have so much room, right? So the restrictions of the text in the comic-book page sort of taught me a shorthand or telegraphic style that I still use today. The writing part of cartooning is the big influence in my paintings now. Just writing for the page, saying what you need to say but paring it down just so that it reads nicely, gets the information across, and looks good, and is balanced.
THE OA: That’s it, isn’t it? This sense of a perfect fit, that the phrase belongs in that landscape, even though it’s a surreal conceit. I wonder if you’ve ever thought a phrase was interchangeable? Take LSD, for example, or THE WRONG QUESTION-ASKER. Could any other phrase have fit tonally with those backgrounds?
WW: Yeah, there’s other things that could have, but that’s sort of what rings the bell with my paintings, you know? It seems like there’s nothing else that fits. I want it to have that feeling, that this phrase here in this landscape was inevitable. That’s sort of the mystery of the paintings, what gives them their kick—and what makes them art, I hope. But that’s an interesting way of seeing it, that they do look inevitable, and that’s all very carefully done. It takes me a long time to adjust the composition. But I don’t want it to look fussy, either. I do want it to look off-hand, in a way. I think people respond to art that looks off-hand. It puts them at ease. You know, the way a good actor looks like he’s not acting.
THE OA: Flipping through the book again, the pencil sketches. Your production sketches from Wayside School, and designs for the spaceship for SMASHING PUMPKINS, sketches of rats, and for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” video—
WW: Yeah, and there’s stuff for a live-action show based on the ARCHIE comic, and sets for BEAKMAN’S WORLD. And for some shows that flopped. And there are paintings I’d do for pitch meetings, these twenty-by-thirty acrylic production paintings people would put on an easel and try to sell a show with. I bore down on those babies. That’s what kept me going as an artist in Hollywood, was being the guy who could do that kind of thing. That’s how I stayed in people’s minds and kept getting jobs. Of course, I kept my mitts on all this stuff. That how I guess I was able to herd ’em all into this book.
But the sketches…one of the ways I made my mark was, I could go nuts on a theme. This is typical of the way I used to work back then. They needed a sketch of a toll booth for a set, I gave them fifty toll booths. I could draw really fast, too. I was like a gunslinger with this stuff. And that’s how I competed and survived in that business, just being able to come back in an hour and just have your eyes pop out. It’s just a trick. A little sleight of hand. So the sketches are typical of the drawing energy I used to have and expended back then. I made my reputation that way. And some people paid attention to it, some didn’t care, so I just kept being the guy who could produce. And that’s what all these drawings remind me of, the whirlwind I was in back then.
And the PEE-WEE stuff. Randy’s in there. Billy Baloney and Dirty Dog, a monster that was never built. Konky the robot…the beatnik puppets.
THE OA: Looking back on it, the PEE-WEE HERMAN project seems so…freaky for children’s television. Or maybe not, maybe that was part of the energy, that it played to both audiences. But it is fascinating as part of a Saturday-morning lineup.
WW: Yeah. The concept was pretty well established by the time I came along—from the Roxy stage show, the HBO special. They laid it all down. And then there was BIG ADVENTURE, Tim Burton’s movie, and that’s what really put him over the top. So when he got the TV series, the whole myth was there already. And I got it, I was hip to it. I just got in the groove with what was already going. And it was perfect. I was having a blast. I was motivated. And competitive, too. I wanted to prove myself. I was twenty-eight and super hungry and had a lot to prove.
THE OA: I wonder if the sketches and the illustrations—the TV stuff—foreshadow the paintings in any way.
WW: There is a consistent use of letters and word forms. The kid-show sets are related to the paintings, the way the space is laid out.
THE OA: But in going from sketches of characters to these word-invaded landscape paintings, I sense a total break. You leave the figurative entirely. The first third of the book is character-driven. Then the landscapes show up with those clean, alien phrases standing there. Other than the dogs or children painted into the original work, your creatures have all disappeared. The Stonehenge letters replaced them.
WW: True. I dropped the figurative completely. There’s no more characters or personalities. It’s all just kind of cool and clean, abstract stuff for a while. But the heat of the personality is put into the content of the words. The words, what they’re saying, contain the personality. Like, “Honey! Bring me my learnin’ books or I’ll smash this painting over your fuckin’ head!” Know what I mean? It’s that same overheated cartoon expressionism character, but they’re just sublimated.
THE OA: I never noticed it before, how that mean, ballsy personality of the early sketches—that German expressionist thing—works its way into the phrases.
WW: There’s anger. There’s aggression all the way through, you’re right about that.
THE OA: But even in how clean the letters themselves are…clean but still angry. The irony still has an energy compressed into it. It’s as if the anger from the sketches matured into these word forms. It’s so clean and mean it’s almost…more German.
WW: Hmmm, this German angle…I definitely do love German art, the power and the rawness. But yeah, “compression” is definitely a way to say it. And maybe I did mature, if maturing is being able to put more grace into what you do. In a way, the character and the anger and the energy is still there, but it’s more effective. It’s not so obvious. And it’s using indirection, which is one of the great devices of art. In fact, I think that’s one of the big lessons you have to learn with art: indirection.
THE OA: Which is not obtuseness—
WW: No. Not encoded, like you have to know a big backstory to understand it. Like some poem that’s thick with references to stuff you don’t get. Just showing off.
THE OA: Any sinners come to mind?
WW: Aw, well…jeez. (Hums, long pause.) I don’t know. Man. I talk a big game—
THE OA: Well, okay, then. If you prefer not to call out any of your contemporaries, let’s just use a historical example.
WW: See, that’s my trouble. I have prejudices, but I really kind of like all kinds of pictures. It’s hard for me to dismiss something right out of hand. I know there’s painting that irritates me, let me think…I don’t know. Jesus. I always get a big block when I try to start talking about other artists, when somebody asks me this question. Constantly. I don’t know why. ’Cause I love lookin’ at all these pictures all the time. Maybe…people…Rothko…well, okay, here’s my attitude toward most pictures: I’m interested in anything. I really am. I have a very open mind when it comes to any kind of picture. I’m just interested in it—why he did it, blah, blah, blah.
THE OA: How about when you were younger? When you were hungry and coming up in New York and Los Angeles? I assume you were more reactionary to the art you saw then.
WW: I never really got that mad about it. I don’t really get mad about any picture. Hype, sure. I was a lot angrier when I was younger—about this guy getting overhyped, or whatever. But by now, you know, if you’re around long enough, you see the cycles rise and fall, rise and fall. I guess that’s what’s got me in such a mellow mood in talking about other art: I’ve seen so much stuff come and go. And I’m not threatened by most art like I used to be. I think that’s also a benefit of the book. I’ve sort of made it to a certain level, and I’m not threatened anymore. It did take off that edge off of being threatened. Because every artist lives with that insecurity—like, “This guy? How old is he? What has he done?” I lived that way for years and years. In the last three or four years, it’s mellowed out for me a bit. I guess it’s just a benefit of getting your work out there. But even that doesn’t last. You still have to deal with your work, to keep it fresh. You can’t rest on your laurels as long as you have the energy.
THE OA: Well, do you get upset about different things?
WW: Yeah. My kids. This f***in’ yardwork I had to pay for.
The OA 10: Questions we ask of every interviewee.
THE OA: Speaking of things you have to pay for, here it is, the last brutal stumpers—THE OA 10. Ready?
1. What superstitions do you have?
Wow…uh…well, I say certain little phrases to myself whenever I start to make a picture. I have little voodoo phrases.
And those are private, right?
I’m not going to reveal them.
2. What would you like to change about yourself?
I wish I was more patient.
3. What are you still trying to accomplish in your professional career?
I think I’m still trying to keep accomplishing the same things. I mean, I still want to keep having shows… well, I would like to get into the Museum of Modern Art.
4. What is your hidden talent?
5. What subject causes you to rant?
Prejudice against the South. I like to rant about that.
6. What is the biggest mistake you’ve made in your professional life?
I guess trying to sell a half-hour cartoon show to the networks. For a prolonged period of time I did it a lot, and it was a big waste of time. I wasn’t cut out. But I had to find out.
7. What is one thing that you used to dislike but that you now like?
Electric Light Orchestra.
8. What profoundly underrated book, album, or movie would you like to champion for us?
Jeez. Profoundly underrated? Good lord. Let me think…I think that movie A FACE IN THE CROWD—Andy Griffith, Elia Kazan. Griffith plays this guy named Dusty Rhodes who rises to be a TV star. It’s pretty great. I highly recommend it. A trilogy of novels by Tom DeHaven: THE FUNNY PAPERS, DERBY DUGAN’S DEPRESSION FUNNIES, and DUGAN UNDERGROUND.
9. What is your favorite line from a song?
How about: “Way in the back you got money in a sack/Both hands on the wheel and your shoulders right back.” That’s DOO WACKA DOO by Roger Miller.
10. What was your favorite childhood toy?
The Fort Apache playset, by Marx toys. It was the classic toy-soldier playset, and Marx toys was the king of that genre. They made the best Civil War and World War II stuff. Any war you wanted, they made. This one was the cavalry and the Indians and the log fort and an Indian village and a metal building you’d assemble. I’d set it all up in the woods and build dirt mounds and build this whole landscape around it. I loved that thing.
[Images courtesy of Todd Oldham.]