New York

Wayne White


Wayne White’s New York debut, “I’m Not Going Around Advertising Surrealism,” is, of course, nothing less than surreal. What else could be invoked by gaudily framed seascapes and woodland glades interrupted by processions of giant words in dropped-out block capitals? In one of the nine canvases here, the phrase HONEST ARTISTS floats like a barge along a river; in another, a row of tall, narrow, rainbow-hued letters reading NASCAR TIT SHIRT bisects an autumnal forest clearing. A third message is less subtle: Cutting across an image of a gently flowing stream amid oak trees is the sentence I’LL SMASH THIS PAINTING OVER YOUR FUCKING HEAD. Yikes.

White’s sensibility is as close to Ed Ruscha’s (who looked pretty closely at Surrealism himself) as it is to Salvador Dalí’s; it is impossible not to be reminded here of Ruscha’s wry paintings of snowcapped mountains with slangy phrases and the names of women and Los Angeles streets stenciled on their surfaces, which were shown recently at Gagosian in New York. White’s linguistic interruptions are just one of his high/low tactics. He also plays with notions of the authenticity of painting (even of the paint-by-numbers trade), using amateur “sofa art” he found in secondhand stores, actually lithographs on canvas, reappropriating the appropriated and mass distributed, adding his unexpected linguistic interventions and signing the works with his name.

If White hasn’t had many shows of his paintings, his work in other fields is well known. He is a successful production designer of music videos and children’s television programming, including the late-’80s Saturday morning hit Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (White was a puppeteer and provided the voices of several characters). There’s a lot of the Playhouse hilarity and irreverence in these paintings. White’s knowing conceptualism extends to his lampooning of the self-seriousness in the art biz and the “here today, gone tomorrow” fate it holds for many, summed up by the matter-of-fact title of one work, Painting that Came to Life Only to be Mocked-Forgotten, 2002 . This man has obviously worked in Hollywood-and White’s monumentally rendered phrases do evoke the famous sign advertising Tinseltown and its mythology.

From the hills of Southern California we’re taken back to those of Tennessee, where White grew up. His nostalgia for his youth and Southern heritage is addressed in the bucolic woodsy scenes of the paintings but is most clearly articulated in the diorama Roy Acuff’s Cave, 2002, a large, angular construction of wood and black tar paper named in honor of another Tennessee native, the country singer also known as the Backwoods Sinatra. Viewers could peek one at a time through the cave’s small opening at a fantasy landscape with pine trees, a waterfall, and the sound of birds chirping. In one area a small plastic van rocked slightly in place and a trio of Confederate toy soldiers spun in a circle. If you looked down instead of ahead, you saw a turntable-like contraption bearing a rotating disk with the words YOU’RE THE REASON YOUR KIDS ARE UGLY printed on it.This panorama of White’s obsessions is like a hillbilly Etant Donnés, a mind’s-eye view of his catalogue of the personal and colloquial.You get the feeling White’s done Pee-Wee, Marcel, Roy, and General Lee equally proud.

Meghan Dailey