Even if the name Wayne White seems unfamiliar, chances are, you’re familiar with his work. Born in Chattanooga, and based in L.A, White began his artistic trajectory traditionally, with a BFA program in his home state, but following school he pursued a series of careers in illustration, set design, and production, among others. During the ’80s he worked as a cartoonist for the New York Times, the Village Voice, and Rolling Stone; toward the end of that decade and through the ’90s, he became an Emmy-winning set designer for TV shows, including children’s hits Pee-wee’s Playhouse—he was also the voice of Vance the Pig in the feature film Big Top Pee-Wee—and Shining Time Station. He also dabbled in music video production for The Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel songs, which earned him Billboard and MTV Music Video Awards. It doesn’t stop there—remember that Snapple iced tea ad campaign with the puppets from the early 2000s? White directed and was head puppeteer for the commercials.
Puppetry, humor, and staging are all threads that run throughout his art, which he’s returned to in recent years, to great success. Driven by his experiences, his career has garnered him a 382-page monograph and a documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing (2012). This fall, White is celebrated anew with a major solo show, “Invisible Ruler,” at Chelsea’s Joshua Liner Gallery. We caught up with the artist in anticipation of the show, to talk about inspirations behind his artistic practice and what to expect from the show he describes as his “ best one yet.”
Artsy: How has your experience working as a cartoonist and a production designer informed your artistic career? Can you tell us about the role of humor in your works?
Wayne White: I learned about communication. It seems simple enough—expressing an emotion or an idea to another person. But the ambiguities of art objects don’t allow that. Comics and sets either work or they don’t. You can’t hide. They showed me how to be honest with myself and the viewer. Humor is truth-telling. People crave that.
Artsy: How did you become interested in puppetry? Will this be manifested in “Invisible Ruler”?
WW: I came to puppetry as a cynical art student. I wanted to smash through the cuteness and find the power source of these voodoo doll shows. I’m still digging for that primal feeling.
Artsy: Can you talk us through the process behind your word paintings? How did you begin making these works and how do you go about choosing language and imagery?
WW: I keep a journal, like any writer. I edit things down to the most minimal lines and paint them as forms on found landscape prints. The framed prints, usually found in thrift stores, are empty stages for my typographic dramas. I began this series 14 years ago as a spur-of-the-moment joke. Art is funny that way. It sneaks up on you in unlikely ways.
Artsy: Can you describe some highlights from “Invisible Ruler” and the experience that visitors to the show will encounter? How does this show compare to previous shows you have had?
WW: “Invisible Ruler” will have at least 20 new word paintings, Civil War puppet heads, my expressionist drawings and watercolors, and a brand new 3D installation that I won’t reveal at this time. The viewer, who might just know the word stuff, will see all sides of me. I deliver a whole Disneyland of eyeball rides. This is my best one yet.