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Wayne White: Beauty is Embarrassing and Other Stories

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Jen Coster on Wayne White’s exhibit and residency at York College and his lecture at Baltimore School for the Arts cohosted by The Contemporary and Gallery CA.

“Art is, in many ways, a decadent, exclusive club that many people don’t feel they have access to because they don’t have enough money or education…. Well screw that! Everyone wants to create stuff, so I am glad that I can create this kind of environment on a grass roots level. It is fun for all.”

Los Angeles based artist Wayne White visited Baltimore last month as part of what he called a “three ring circus” of events in the area. He participated in a month-long residency at nearby York College in Pennsylvania, where he created a large scale site-specific installation, entitled FOE. Concurrent with the exhibition was a retrospective of his gallery works at the school’s campus. In Baltimore he gave a talk on his artistic practice as part of the Contemporary’s Co-Host Lecture Series.

Wayne-white-in-studio

As a child of the 80’s, Wayne White has influenced my generation of emerging artists at nearly every developmental stage. Imaginative worlds came alive on classic kids TV shows for which he designed sets, such as Pee Wee’s Playhouse. White continued on to develop music videos in the heyday of 90’s MTV, which corresponded with my teenage years, when music hits deepest. One standout is White’s video for the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight, whose Victorian puppet animation fit perfectly with the mood of the music. And, in college, I learned about White’s word paintings in my contemporary art history class. His work is irreverent and playful, grouped with other LA artists whose practice operated outside of the more serious New York system. As a twenty-something living in LA, I found myself at Fred 62’s late at night more than a few evenings, where White’s paintings hung on the walls of the popular diner where one can sometimes spot celebrities.

For the past few years, White has been traveling the country to participate in residencies at colleges where he designs and builds large-scale site-specific installations. Using his background in puppetry and stage design, he creates fantastical environments to tell stories that often relate to historical events from the colleges’ towns.

I visited his project at York College the day before its opening. An 18 foot tall General Early greets visitors at the door, with an oversized hand and aggrandized posture demanding submission. As we walk under his legs to enter the exhibit, a menagerie of characters emerge, cardboard figures crowded into the room so close there is no separation between sculpture and audience.

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The scene depicts a historical account of a confederate raid that took place in the town of York. General Jubal Early rolled into the town with his army of hungry country boys, demanding ransom and supplies. An industrial town, York was ripe with material goods, and the looting of the town took on a celebratory indulgence in a time of conflict. White’s depiction brings out the man under the soldier, and gestures that show the universal qualities shared between friend and foe. White subverts darkness with humor, while still illustrating characters filled with both ego and vulnerability.

The materials are simple, corrugated cardboard bodies with lumbar support and a coat of acrylic paint. With such raw construction, the linework, craftsmanship and devotion to the practice are illuminated. In the exhibit, there is no white or neutral space, and visitors are completely immersed with characters we are more accustomed to viewing through the more distant mediums of stage, video or illustration. In one kinetic sculpture, a man with scraggly toenails pulls on a pair of new shoes, a universal gesture showing both conquest and vulnerability. During an interview with the curator, White talks about a long-standing fantasy of drawing a landscape and jumping into the picture (a la Mary Poppins) and in this installation he creates the experience of a sketchbook come alive. (Sketchbook images and models are on display in the downstairs gallery.)

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The environment took a month to construct, with a rotating team of volunteers loyally working alongside the artist. Arriving the day before the opening, I was able to witness construction in action, cardboard strewn about the floor, paint cans covering tables, and ladders adjusting final amendments. White is accustomed to working with a crew to fabricate the large scale works, but for this project all of the help came from a variety of volunteers who donated their time. One man came as far as Missouri to work for the day, while others worked a full 9-5 schedule for the duration of the project. White speaks of his desire to subvert the exclusive nature of the art world through communal experience in the project’s catalog, which bears repeating:

“Art is, in many ways, a decadent, exclusive club that many people don’t feel they have access to because they don’t have enough money or education…. Well screw that! Everyone wants to create stuff, so I am glad that I can create this kind of environment on a grass roots level. It is fun for all.”

This same playfully brazen commentary on the art world can be found in White’s gallery work, which is on view in a retrospective on campus. In one of the first paintings that greet us, White paints a nude portrait of Picasso on top of a reclaimed thrift store landscape lithograph – with a sliver of his ass falling off. In other paintings words monumentally traverse the canvas with satirical, poetic and laugh out loud funny commentary.

CoHosts: Gallery CA & Wayne White from The Contemporary on Vimeo.

On March 27th, White came to Baltimore to give a talk as part of The Contemporary’s CoHost Lecture Series. The professionally developed series started with gallery directors making introductions, which was interrupted by the taunting notes of banjo music being played backstage. Tonight the audience was in for a performance rather than an academic survey. White chronicled his life in the style of a master storyteller, weaving in biographical information, anecdotes from the cultural milieu of the times, and his inspirational fodder, all the while inserting jokes, musical asides and puppet appearances. It was a biographical journey told with wit, bravado, inspiration and laughter.

They Used To Put Me Down In The Seventies, 2005

As the story goes, White grew up an art kid in a provincial southern town. He went to college and found a community of like-minded friends, made a bunch of bad paintings, dabbled in mediums, started performing puppet shows, and discovered underground comics. He ran off to New York, where he worked at a diner, interned with Art Spiegelman, fraternized in the underground comic circle of the 80’s, and met his future wife, Mimi Pond, an equally accomplished and inspiring artist. He started designing sets, learned on the job, moved to LA, and raised a family of artists. He became overworked in the entertainment industry, went back to painting for himself, was discovered serendipitously by art dealers, and had a healthy career in contemporary art. Most recently, he went back to his original muse of making large scale puppet installations at universities across the country.

They Used To Put Me Down In The Seventies, 2005
They Used To Put Me Down In The Seventies, 2005

Throughout the lecture, White provided imagery central to his development as an artist. Some inspirations include the advertisements of the 60’s featuring bold colors and sharp typography, the magically immersive 3D experience of the View Master, Mad Magazine, R. Crumb comics, civil war history, pastoral landscapes, painted barn advertisements, and southern authoritative archetypes.

Peppered into the talk were personal mantras, encouraging advice, and humorous asides, which gave the evening a feel-good atmosphere. Wayne encouraged the audience both to play the game and remember to laugh. Some of the mottoes from the evening include – “laughter is sacred,” “surround yourself with people better than you,” and “everyone is winging it.”

The combination of both a large-scale site-specific installation as well as a survey of gallery works shown concurrently marks a first for White. Along with the lectures given in York and Baltimore, the self-dubbed “three ring circus” of events provides a satisfying foray into the world of Wayne White.

3_all-that-fake-laughin-for-nothin-1

FOE is on exhibit from April 4 – May 20th and located at Marketview Arts, 37 W Philadelphia St, York, PA 17401.

Wayne White Masterworks 2000-2013 is up from April 4-24 and is located at York College Galleries, Wolf Hall, YCP, 441 Country Club Rd, York, PA 17403.

* Author Jennifer Coster is an artist living in Baltimore. In 2012 she received an MFA from MICA and founded the publication Print/Collect.

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