Beauty is Embarrassing
Directed by Neil Berkeley
“My mission is to bring humor into contemporary art,” Wayne White declares near the end of Beauty is Embarrassing, Neil Berkeley’s absorbing documentary about the artist who, with every new project, comes closer to accomplishing his mission. A charismatic figure whose paintings of giant letters on tacky thrift-store art spelling out funny messages—“Donald Judd Was a Son of a Bitch Wrecked His Train in a Whorehouse Ditch,” “I’ll Smash This Painting Over Your Fucking Head,” etc.—have finally been accepted by the comedy-wary art world, White’s circuitous career trajectory affords glimpses of fascinating and esoteric creative communities. Berkeley connects the now-disparate participants in those moments of creative fervor while crafting a very thorough portrait of his main subject.
White was born in Chattanooga and grew up an outcast, only finding likeminded artists when he enrolled at Middle Tennessee State University, after which he moved to New York in the early days of the East Village art scene. His puppet performances, similar in tone to Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy’s video collaborations, eventually landed him a job working on a strange new kid’s-TV show being shot in somebody’s loft, Pee-wee’s Playhouse. The sizeable section of Beauty is Embarrassing devoted to the incubator-like collective of artists who came together to create Pee-wee is especially fascinating, particularly as it outgrows its DIY, Downtown roots after the first season to become a Los Angeles studio soundstage production.
After working on other TV shows, creating many music videos—including, most famously, the George Méliès-inspired video for the Smashing Pumpkins’s “Tonight, Tonight”—and burning out from overwork, White has settled into something of a renaissance-man role. Berkeley tags along as he visits his parents’ home, drops in on a college buddy to collaborate on a giant puppet, creates an oversized cardboard LBJ head with his son for an impromptu performance, paints in his studio, and presents his punch line-like compositions in a traveling stage show that’s equal parts TED talk and comedy routine. With his candid portrait, Berkeley shows that White is indeed that rare funny artist who deserves to be taken seriously—but not too seriously.
Opens September 7