The Wrath of the Laugh: An Interview with Wayne White

By the time you read this, Wayne White’s Invisible Ruler will be closed. The exhibition at Joshua Liner Gallery was Wayne’s return to NYC, and an outstanding success. Earlier this week, we caught up with Wayne in Los Angeles and proceeded to talk about life, art, and his life in art.

TWBE: Let’s start from the beginning. You grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when did you first discover art?

Wayne White: That’s a tough question. I guess I discovered art in drawing, and that’s one of my earliest memories. I discovered drawing just on my own as every kid does. I didn’t know it was called art and I didn’t really know what an artist was for a long time. There were no galleries or museums or any culture around when I was kid at that time. I came to it naturally from just a love of drawing and of course as I grew I learned about art history and artists and everything. My mother was where I got my biggest influence from. She was the artistic one in the family and loved to decorate, collect antiques and stuff. So she knew a little bit about art. When I was a little bitty kid I remember her saying, “Well Wayne could be a commercial artist one day.” She’d say that to adults, I overheard her because she didn’t say it directly to me. I would sit there as a little kid and I would imagine an artist that comes on between TV shows on the commercial and he’s standing there painting a portrait and it’s a commercial you know… (Laughter). And you get a smock – I remember it as clear as a bell. The vision I had in my head. You’ve got a smock on and there’s a pedestal with a bowl of fruit on it and an easel. It’s a commercial of a guy painting. I thought that’s what a commercial artist was.
So from there you went to art school and studied abstract painting at a college in Tennessee?

Yeah as I grew in Chattanooga, I went to high school and stuff and I was the school artist and a cartoonist on the school newspapers. That’s what I originally wanted to be as a kid was a cartoonist because that was my idea of an artist. And then I went to Middle Tennessee State University and I majored in painting because I just thought that painting was a serious thing to do. It’s what real artist did. I took four years of painting and art history and stuff, and that’s where I really learned about the art world and the history of art. The history part of it was just as important as the actual doing of it because that was a great education for me. Just learning about the past. I studied abstract – my painting teacher was an abstract expressionist. That was my first serious foray into painting, abstract painting.
You never strayed from that at all? You never tried to paint cartoons or anything?

Well, I kept drawing underground cartoons for the college newspaper and I always had an interest in cartoons. And my abstract paintings had a very cartoony line and I was interested in finding the gap between abstract paintings and cartoons which they share a lot, and I was a big fan of Phillip Guston and Willem de Kooning who both had very cartoony lines. Cartoons were never very far from my mind and then the minute that I graduated from four years of that abstract expressionism and everything, I got back into comics because I saw Raw Magazine and I knew this was the next generation for undergrounds. It was full of exciting great art and Raw Magazine is what got me convinced to become a cartoonist again. It inspired me to move to New York City.
What year was that?

It was 1980 when I first saw Raw. I was in Nashville where I lived for a year after I graduated.
When did you move to New York?

I didn’t get to New York until January of ’82. I spent another year in Nashville saving my dough (laughs) and then I made the leap. And in 1982 it was pretty rough and ready you know. I lived downtown in the East Village and it was still pretty funky, but it was a great time for the arts. A time when a young artist could afford to live in Manhattan and it was New York City so it was great. It was very exciting. It was my best education.

Do remember what streets you lived on in the East Village?

I lived at fifth and A. Between A and B. I lived there twice. I lived there by myself in one building and then I moved to Brooklyn for a year to Carroll Gardens and then I moved back into another building with Mimi. Oddly enough at the same corner of fifth and A.
That was good luck. I guess you really liked the area (laughs).

It was a great time to be there and it was a great time to be in the graphic arts, and magazines were still going strong. I earned a good living – not good – but I made it okay as a freelance illustrator and cartoonist for magazines. Then Pee-Wee’s Playhouse came along and changed everything. I became a puppet and set designer, a puppeteer.
Right. I read that you kind of took like a blind leap into that. You just made it all up as it happened.

I had been doing puppet shows for about five or six years at that point and they were like homemade puppet shows. I was aware of Pee-Wee and Andy Kaufman. They were kind of in the same spirit this kind of performance art, kid show, and weird mutation thing. I did my own version of it at parties and galleries and stuff. I very much was inspired by Andy Kaufman and Pee-Wee and my own experience. I think it was a real Zeitgeist / Baby Boomer kind of thing that we all shared where we made fun of all the local kid shows that we’d all grown up with in the cities all over the country. Every city used to have their own local kid show and it was always funky with funky puppets. That was sort of what I was making fun of too. That led to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. I had been doing the puppet shows while I was a cartoonist and illustrator in New York and lo and behold this goofy hobby of mine lead to really the biggest break that I got.
What year did you start working on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse?

It was the spring of ’86 and I had been in New York then for five years. It took me almost two years to get where I could work as a freelancer. Before then I was like a short order cook and stuff. Working all these horrible odd jobs. I really struggled for two years, but by the time Pee-Wee came along I thought I was going to be an illustrator. I took advantage of this other thing I did. This weird puppet show thing. It turned out to be more important than I thought (laughs).
Without a doubt. My first job in New York was hustling comedy shows in Times Square.

Oh, you’d hand out flyers?
Oh yeah for I think like seven months straight and I can remember one night—because I always did it at night—I was in an absolute blizzard and nobody was going into comedy shows. Our bosses were just so ruthless. They were like, “You stay out there and you bring people in.” I was just like, “Oh you’ve got to be kidding me right now.” (laughter)

It’s a tough town.
It is. It really makes you work you know, and you just gotta keep banging and banging and banging and then hopefully a door opens for you somewhere. Or you just bust through it.

I was a young guy with nothing to lose and no connections. Free and alone and I was ready to go for it. I did.
What magazines were you working for before Pee-Wee’s?

(laughs) I had a regular comic strip in High Times Magazine (laughs).

I even did the cover once.

What year? I just got a book that has every single High Times cover in it.

Alright, it was probably 85 and it was an issue about cocaine. It’s this weird little yellow dude that’s having his head open and a blue cocaine demon is coming out of it. It was this little cardboard model that I’d built and they photographed it. So it was probably ’85 maybe like the middle of ’85. Do you see it?

’84. Okay. Yeah
Oh man, that’s phenomenal

(laughs) And I had a regular strip inside called Ms. Car in the back comic session.
What was Ms. Car about?

It was just this weird little surrealist gag strip about a woman that was a car and her breasts were Cadillac bumper bullets and her head was an upside down car.

Do you have my book? The coffee table book. By any chance.

It’s in there.
Josh (Liner) showed it to me at his apartment, but I never got it.

I don’t think they even have it online. I’ve googled it a few time and nothing ever comes up. But it’s called Ms. Car. Maybe it’s on my website actually if you go there. The early work or something like that. It might be there. Anyway I did that. I did some stuff for the New York Times. And then the book review mostly. I did lots of trade magazines like Travel and Leisure and all these early computer magazines. I never broke through to the big time. I never got the plumb jobs. Oh, I did tons of Village Voice jobs, East Village Eye, I did the cover of the Village Voice a couple times. That was a pretty big thing back then.
Yeah, that’s pretty good.

But I never scored the Rolling Stone gig (laughs).
Was that IT for you?

That was big thing for illustrators back then. But I did get the New York Times a few times. Tons of little biz trade magazines. That was a real steady work. Stuff nobody ever saw, you know like stuff for the garment industry. I didn’t stick with it long enough to get the jobs I wanted. I could’ve but then Pee-Wee came along and it was a very abrupt change overnight and that changed my life significantly.
You did one year in New York for Pee-Wee, correct?

Yeah. ’86 and then in 1987 we moved out here to LA and did the rest of them out here. We would go back and forth and then eventually just moved here in January of 1990. That’s where all the TV work was and I went after the money. Went full time into TV and spent 25 years out here. Raised two kids and you know got a house and the whole deal.
It seems like a nice place to settle down. When did you turn back to fine art?

I started painting again right after Pee-Wee stopped. It was like I thought I had enough juice to do anything I wanted, you know. I could crossover. I always wanted to paint and do my own thing, every artist does. You know how it is. I started painting again in 1990, a long time ago. It was hard to get it going, but I did. I kept it going on the side the whole time when I was still a set designer and working in TV. And an animator and a performer… whatever. I kept painting on the side and my paintings went through all these different evolutions. One weird change was when I started painting all these thrift store things and that really lit the spark. That was in 2000. So I got into the art world 14 years ago. There was some overlap. I kept having to work in Hollywood for a while, but I’ve been full time in the art world since about 2007 or so. So I was really lucky. I’ve done four real distinct things. The freelance illustration, the cartooning, then showbiz, and then the art world.
It seems like a dream path to tell you the truth. You built up your experience in trade and then you hit Hollywood and then after Hollywood you parlayed everything into where it’s more your time than anything else. You really just let your imagination go.

Well, yeah but it wasn’t easy. (laughter) It’s all about some basic skills really. I could always draw and paint and that’s a human trick that people really like and respond to. And if you spin it the right way and you get into the right circles you can do things with it still. Now, maybe you can do it more on the computer than on the page, but still, if you can draw that’s the ticket.
It’s a natural talent that not many people have. Where do you think your sense of humor comes from? Was your father funny? Was your mother funny? Obviously when you got to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse you had Paul Reubens who must have been hilarious. But your own artwork it makes people laugh, it makes people smile. Which is the greatest. Any idea of where it all comes from?

No, not really. It comes from a lot of different places. You can’t really pinpoint something like that. It’s definitely influenced by Southern Culture. The timing and the certain dryness and stuff, but it’s hard for me to say one place. My family wasn’t particularly funny or anything (laughter). Just the opposite you know. So I’d be cool. I don’t know. That’s a really hard one to answer. It’s definitely Southern in origin. That culture definitely spawned it. Either just in the direct organic rhythms of the language and stuff and my angry reaction against the culture too. That’s where a lot of comedy comes from is the acting against something, so I spent a lot of time doing that. If you do that with humor it takes the bitterness out of it.

It doesn’t always work (laughs) I’m mostly bitter (laughter). But you know humor is fun man. Everybody loves to laugh.
Yeah. Everybody loves to laugh. If there’s a person that doesn’t love to laugh then I don’t even – I don’t know I just kind of walk away. (laughs)

No man it’s the payoff. It’s like the best fucking thing there is.
Well you got the gift for it all. Do you think the cartoons and comics that you grew up doing played into what you are making with the word paintings now?

Oh definitely. I have a long history with type. I used draw letters when I was kid. Before I could even read I would draw letters like they were characters and stuff. I was just attracted to them as forms and then I was a sign painter as a teenager and in college. It was a part time job. I used to do that and then draw cartoons with nothing but type. I mean there’s tons of type in cartoons. A beautiful page of comics has to have a balance between the word balloons and the title page and the splash page. You’re just constantly dealing with type. So yeah, I’ve dealt with type in different ways. It’s only natural that I’m still doing it. I’ll always do it. I love letter forms. It’s a deep subject you know. Letters are the whole building block of everything.
Yeah. I agree with that 100 percent. And some of the type influence came from the barns that were painted across the South.

The Rock City Barns. The barn roofs that were painted in giant white letters that usually said “See Rock City” or “A Beautiful Rock City” but mostly “See Rock City.” These were a natural extension of just growing in the American landscape. When you think about it, you’re surrounded by giant letters and words everywhere. We take for it granted, but your whole landscape, the whole American landscape is nothing but giant letter forms. It’s a classic kind of American landscape motif too.
That got me thinking that if there’s ever been a monument of type. I guess besides Robert Indiana’s large essentially type sculptures. If there’s ever been something carved out of marble that is type? I don’t know.

Well it’s a tricky proposition. I’m trying to get some public art projects going in Chattanooga that are going to be big type sculptures.

Literally my paintings come to life but it’s the change from a painting to reality is tricky. You don’t want it to look like a sign. (laughter) Which is really what I’m doing now. I’m painting these signs sort of, but they’re sculptures and that all comes from Pop Art, too. I’m just using the vernacular of sign painting and signs as a fine art idea. It’ll have the same meaning too, fun high and low. I don’t worry about it because I’ve been high, low and all over the place. It’s all about the same.
Art is art. It takes a person to categorize it, but it’s all just an act of creation anyway.

Yeah, you know it’s just forms and space and they either speak or they don’t. I don’t know you just got to keep at it. If it survives a few hundred years if becomes art anyway. Everything eventually become art because it’s a relevant to culture. It’s precious.
People’s old drinking cups from who knows when… the Byzantine era. That’s all considered art now. It’s a trip, but it is art without a doubt. Getting into sculpture a little bit,  you’ve brought your puppeteering back in the form of large kinetic sculptures. It was pretty great watching all the levers and strings being pulled at the opening. Do you have more plans for those?

That’s a big part of what I do. I’ve been doing those constantly. I’ll always do those that’s a sense – I mean most people know the word paintings – but the big giant puppets that’s been going on for a long time.
How did they get so big?

(laughter) I guess I just was – geez – I like giants you know. Who doesn’t like a giant especially in person, something – a big human form. There’s something so primal about that. I always liked the stories about giants as a kid, Jack and the Beanstalk and the jump of scale is really thrilling. And it’s a great way to dominate a space. Like my mission and my challenge for the last six years is going to all these arts and residencies where I’m hired by museums to do installation is to dominate the space. Nothing dominates more than a giant figurative form that moves, i.e. a giant ass puppet. (laughter) I have plans to keep doing that for a long time. That’s sort of my new thing now especially since the kids are out of the house and I can travel. Mimi and I, my wife, can travel easier now so I do artist residencies where I go and stay a couple weeks to a month and I build cool stuff. Usually big puppets.
Do you plan to go bigger? Is there a limit?

Well shit I don’t know. No. (laughter) Maybe I’ll do one that has a hot air balloon head and his body is trailing down to the earth. Now that would be great.
That would be really good.

Yeah. It sounds very very very dangerous actually. It’s probably illegal. Ahhhh… I’m floating into the wires. The puppets head exploded. I love to do sculptures, and puppets are sculptures. I mean my paintings are paintings of sculptures. Paintings of these giant forms in life and space and landscape. So I’m never far away from the idea of something three dimensional. The third dimension is just as important as the paintings and drawings.
“Invisible Ruler.” Where does the title for your show come from?

To tell you the truth it literally comes from this ruler I have that’s a clear plastic ruler (laughter). It has no lines, it’s just a clear plastic strip and you can’t find the God Damn thing. You set it down and its invisible and so I kept thinking. I kept calling it my invisible ruler and I thought “that sounds deep, invisible ruler.”
It really does.

You know how ideas are, they come from everywhere.
Is there a place where you get your best ideas? Like I find my best thoughts happen on the subway or in the shower.

Hmmm… No they come – no I can’t really pinpoint it.
Just kind of happens.

Seasonally. You know I get good ideas in the fall sometimes. I don’t know why. It’s a good time for me to come up with new ideas. Daily, I can’t pinpoint it. It just happens and mostly you know it doesn’t just happen it’s a long process. That’s how it is.
What’s the process like for one of your word paintings?

I keep journals. I keep little notebooks. I discipline myself not to draw, not to doodle. Just write down words. Just write down ideas. So I have journals like a writer would keep and that’s where I keep track of ideas for the word paintings. I talk to myself and say things, write that down. I have thoughts I jot those down. I overhear things. I’ll overhear somebody talking and they’ll say something. You know just observations and from there, again, like a writer. I pick stuff and usually it’s in a longer form and boil it down to shorter form. I also discipline myself to write down as short as I can so it’s very telegraphic and sometimes it’s long. So I just keep these writings. I’m a frustrated writer. I really am.
It’s a difficult thing. Do you match the canvases you pick up with the words in the books? Do you figure out what works best or is it just completely random?

It’s random. Completely random. All these painting are pretty blank to begin with so I don’t look for any kind of – there all just blank. I just think of them as empty stages and whatever fits fits. Whatever’s at hand. I don’t try to make any intellectualizing on that level (laughs).
I like that “Good looking people having fun without you” piece.

It kind of resonates in today’s culture.

Yeah, I’ve done that twice. It’s one of my favorite sayings that I’ve come up with, and is the number one message of the media. Number one message of at least advertising.
Yeah it is.

It is. It is. (laughter) That’s the number one thing that advertising is telling you and the New York Times magazine on Sunday and any kind of fashion oriented media. That’s what it’s telling you. Look at you loser, look what you missed out on.

Look at this beautiful girl or this beautiful guy that you’re not fucking. Look at the party that you didn’t get to go to. Look at this shit – look at what they’re wearing in this ad. You can’t have that shit. It’s all without you and what are you going to do about it?
You’re going to try and get there.

I want. I want. I want.
That one and the “The overconfident man on horseback.”

That’s the history of the world in a nutshell.
 The lady on the piano, her face right up against the text. Just playing the song right along with it.

She’s just playing the song of time. (laughter) It’s a raga. It’s over and over and over. The same old tune over and over.
And the laughter continues…

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