Beauty Is Embarrassing


Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a Saturday-morning staple for Gen Xer’s who were, at the time, way older than the time slot’s intended audience, represented the pure, uncut mainstreaming of the late-1980s art scene in New York’s East Village. The first season was even shot on the upper floor of a former neighborhood sweatshop and employed the scene’s comics, actors, and artists. The show wore on the sleeve of its tightly tailored suit the era’s prevailing aesthetic of post-postmodern cultural sub-references and recombinant visual DNA derived from multiple decades of pop art. And it was a Camelot period for artist Wayne White, who designed sets, props, and characters including Randy, the spindly, giant-headed bully marionette, whom he also performed. Beauty Is Embarrassing, directed by Neil Berkeley, documents White’s career and seemingly happy home life with all the color and wit of the subject’s paintings and mixed-media sculptures. The end of the show, and White’s subsequent struggles, are followed by a late-career renaissance in which he created a famous series of “word paintings,” covering found landscapes with elaborate, funny slogans. White is clever and hugely charismatic, and Berkeley films several of the live monologues in which he discusses his art and philosophy. Among cartoonists, artists, and critics, White is legendary, and Berkeley interviews Mimi Pond, Matt Groening, Mark Mothersbaugh, Paul Reubens, and others, who paint a vivid, fluorescent-colored portrait of a sane man possessed with insane creativity. Chris Packham