The Magic Wordsmith The Magic Wordsmith
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The Magic Wordsmith

by Patrick James

July 3, 2009

Maybe now Wayne White will get the respect he so richly deserves.

We don't always refer to puppeteers as artists. Same goes for set designers. And cartoonists. But the artist Wayne White has worn each of those hats, and, over an astonishingly prolific career, he's worn them well: The man drew cartoons for The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Raw; he built and operated puppets on Pee-wee's Playhouse, one of the many children's programs for which he also designed fantastical sets; and he headed set design on music videos for Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and The Smashing Pumpkins's "Tonight, Tonight."However, in his new retrospective, Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, edited and arranged by Todd Oldham, we're privy to the oeuvre of a painter and sculptor of the highest order, one who's enjoyed recent notoriety for his surreal landscapes-thrift-store-purchased lithographs from the 1970s, superimposed with bold, three dimensional text. Yet, with White, nothing feels more or less vital than anything else. And he's been kind enough to share with us his thoughts on three decades of work, the false dichotomy of high and low art, and what it means to think like a kid.GOOD: Todd Oldham arranged this book in such a way it allows the reader to experience so much of your life's work. It seems like that would give you the chance for some serious self-appraisal. Is that prospect exciting or daunting?WAYNE WHITE: Well, it does allow me that luxury of looking back and thinking about the whole thing, but, to tell you the truth, at this point, I haven't really formulated any insights. In fact, I'm sort of avoiding it. Looking back is sort of a passive thing for me; I prefer to keep moving forward. I was jolted into that realization when I left the South in 1981 and moved to New York City. I had a degree in painting, but the minute I got out there, I realized that I wasn't gonna make me a living [as a painter]. I'd seen Raw Magazine, which Art Spiegelman was putting out at the time, and it convinced me that there was whole new theme of cartooning and illustrating, this whole new generation that was coming up, and I wanted to be a part of that.G: It was an exciting time for cartoonists and comic artists. Were you just surrounded by inspirational people? WW: Oh, definitely. I got to watch Spiegelman draw Maus, the cartoon about the Holocaust, and just hanging around [his] crowd was an incredible experience. I learned more in that first year than I did anywhere else.G: How'd you make the transition into set design? WW: I'd been doing puppet shows as a hobby since college, and I just kept doing them for fun at parties and occasionally at gallery openings, which led to my first professional job as a set designer for a small show called Mrs. Cabobble's Caboose in 1985. I used that portfolio to [get a job as] the set designer, puppeteer, and puppet maker for Pee-wee's Playhouse.G: I think that for anyone of my generation, Pee-wee's Playhouse was a pretty significant cultural touchstone, partly because the world of the show was so special. What was the guiding principle for creating that set?WW: Well, the true power of Pee-wee's Playhouse was that it wasn't done by Hollywood professionals; it was done by downtown New York cartoonists and painters and sculptors. It was really an East Village art project, so we approached it as a sculptural environment-and [we were] given license to give it a little edge and irony.G: Did you find it difficult to make art for children?WW: Well, I think that all artists are very closely linked to their childhood. You can either get sentimental and maudlin about it, or you can really dig deep and try to find the universal spark that makes childhood so special. In most kids, [creativity] is usually drummed out of you by the time you're 4 or 5. So I try to dig down deep and find the three-year-old and keep that alive in me. It's cliché, but if you live long enough, you realize most clichés are true.
G: With your landscapes, you took really bland, mass-produced lithographs-wherein, presumably, the childlike artist had been beaten out of the adult who made it-and you turned them into these spectacularly weird art pieces by superimposing text on them. How did that come about?WW: Those lithographs were big in sixties through the seventies-they would usually sell them with couches in department stores. I was hoarding them for the frames and trying to knock out cheap reproductions of 19th Century landscapes on my own canvases, which were getting more and more surreal. One day, I decided to put some words middle of the woods I was painting, and then I thought, "Hmmm. What would happen if I just used this ready-made landscape?" It's sort of a lesson in the value of spontaneity-and [it ended up being] kind of a defiant gesture toward the idea of what's original and what's not.G: These days ideas of appropriation, who owns creative space, and challenging what "original" means are pretty central themes, no?WW: Maybe. A lot of the issues that the paintings brought on weren't really on my mind at first-I thought it was just gonna be sort of a throwaway joke. But that's how the best art is made. With art there are all kinds of unconscious elements going on, and the biggest challenge is to sort of tap into them without being conscious and sentimental or self-serious. It keeps you off your high horse.
G: I think with all your work there's a childlike, otherworldly lightheartedness, but there's also, paradoxically, a sense of heaviness and feeling to it all.WW: That's definitely been one of my missions, you know, bringing together the high stuff and the low stuff, the so-called disparate elements. There can be real human depth to the lowest kind of art form. And that was a lesson I learned as a cartoonist you know-or as a kids' show designer or a video set director-there's a depth in everything as long as you are sincere in your efforts.All images © 2009 Wayne White,  Courtesy of AMMOBOOKS. Wayne White's paintings are currently showing at Mireille Mosler Gallery in New York City. 
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The Magic Wordsmith