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Former 'Pee-wee's Playhouse' Cartoonist Makes Unexpectedly Funny Text Art

The former Pee Wee’s Playhouse set designer and puppeteer talks about his latest exhibition of word paintings.

When Pee Wee’s Playhouse assembled its team of set designers and puppeteers, cartoonist Wayne White was one of several artists tasked with creating the show’s look. A surreal amalgam of Googie futurism and surreal psychedelia, White’s work on the show led to other television gigs (Beakman’s World, The Weird Al Show), as well as music video directing work (Peter Gabriel's “Big Time” and Smashing Pumpkins' “Tonight, Tonight”).

White eventually tired of Hollywood, and in 1999 he began making vibrantly colored and sarcastically humorous word paintings. White combined words and phrases like “LSD” and “Failed Abstract Paintings of the 70s” with generic landscape paintings commonly found in hotels or average American homes. A new exhibition of these paintings, I’m Having a Dialogue With the Universe and You’re Just Sitting There, is now on at Joshua Liner gallery in New York.

‘UNLIKE (purple on green)’ (2015), acrylic on paper.

The show includes one of White’s kinetic sculptures and a Willy Wonka-esque panoramic wallpaper installation made in collaboration with Flavor Paper’s Jon Sherman. Though the self-described “hillbilly” artist ran screaming from his hometown of Chattanooga for New York and came of age in the 60s and 70s, the development of his word paintings seems much more current. Among these works there is an odd synchronization with the development of microblogging platforms like Twitter. In a strange way, White’s art is almost fine-tuned for the Instagram world.

“I do think about that—how the age of Twitter and quick communications have paired down things like that and parallel things I've been doing,” White tells The Creators Project. “My paintings definitely telegraph things much like Twitter does and much like the quick feed of all computer worlds do now.”

Installation view.

“I always say that artists are like nerve endings, [these] canaries in the coal mine,” he adds. “We're in this state where we can just perceive things and we don't even know we're doing it. I don't know what I'm doing. I just took a hunch and went with it.”

White, who blends low and high culture like a visual Thomas Pynchon, met some resistance within the art world when his playful psychedelic style found its way into fine art galleries. Though this might have discouraged other artists, White doubled down on his motivations and aesthetics. As far as he sees it, the digital age, with its instantaneous flow of visual information, is allowing this type of cross-pollination of genre to lead to interesting new artistic blooms.

“Everything is available now—you can make immediate comparisons and jump from one thing to another in seconds,” White muses. “And when you can travel that fast through a visual information world you start to realize everything is connected, and the class distinctions of fine art are to be questioned.”

‘PANTY DROPPER’ (2016), acrylic on vintage offset lithograph.

White says that his love of the short humorous phrase comes from his days as cartoonist, and time spent around television and comedy writers. The word paintings grew out of these interactions. One of these happened to be the everyday influence of his wife, Mimi Pond, an illustrator and writer who has published several humor books and the 2014 graphic novel Over Easy.

“[The word paintings] definitely come from learning how to communicate humor through a picture or a phrase,” he adds. “A lot of my stuff is about banality. I have a painting that says, “God-damned fucked up piece of shit,” and why not? How many times have you heard that in your life? It's base reality.”

‘Inulekshul’ (2016), acrylic on vintage offset lithograph.

While the word paintings also heavily mock the artistic ego, White’s kinetic sculptures are, as he says, about “pure joy,” not sarcasm or cynicism. For him it’s an opportunity to exercise his inner child in three dimensions. The new exhibition’s kinetic sculpture features White’s colorful, bulbous words spinning on a makeshift windmill.

White is taking this impulse to its ultimate conclusion with his Chattanooga funhouse called Wayne-O-Rama. He is currently putting the finishing touches on it now with the help of local artists and the arts organization The Shaking Ray Levi Society. Set to open in November, Wayne-O-Rama is a funhouse centered on Chattanooga history, and will feature moving puppets, sculptures, dioramas and miniature worlds.

Installation of view of wallpaper ‘Waynetopia’ (2016) wallpaper, and ‘A GOOD IDEA IS WHAT I’VE GOT  / IS WHAT I’VE GOT A GOOD IDEA’ kinetic sculpture (2016)

“I'm fully exulting in that side of myself right now,” White says. “That's a populist thing. I'm reaching out to people who don't go see art shows. There is enough in there to please the biggest art snob and the most inexperienced person. Who doesn't love giant puppets and miniature worlds?”

Wayne White’s I’m Having a Dialogue With the Universe and You’re Just Sitting There

Click here to see more of Wayne White’s work.

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