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'Beauty Is Embarrassing': Giant Puppets, Painted Words, And What Art Is All About

The poster for Beauty Is Embarrassing.
Beauty Is Embarrassing

I didn't actually know the name "Wayne White" when I went to see the documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing at Silverdocs this summer. But as it turns out, I've certainly seen his work, and even if, like me, you're not visual-arts-oriented enough to know his marvelous word paintings, you may have, too.

Wayne White did some of the puppets and production design for Pee-Wee's Playhouse. He worked on the Peter Gabriel "Big Time" video. He worked on Shining Time Station, Beakman's World, and The Weird Al Show. That strange, big-headed cartoon look that a certain stripe of culture — especially but not exclusively kids' culture — took on in the mid-1980s? Some of that was Wayne White.

He's an absolutely fascinating guy, and Beauty Is Embarrassing, which is available on demand through a lot of cable providers as well as for rent from iTunes and Amazon, lays out the path he took as well as his philosophy of making art. He's wonderfully candid, and he has that quality that a certain kind of artist has where every time he picks up two found objects, they suddenly seem to become something else. At one point, he shows off a puppet made from sticks, and it's the best illustration imaginable that you could find those same sticks, or I could, but they wouldn't become anything. It's his brain. His brain plus stuff is art. True of every artist, but very pronounced with him.

Director Neil Berkeley develops a comfort level with White, as well as his wife (the artist Mimi Pond), and their kids. Much of the film genuinely feels like a series of conversations about art, not just interviews. White is stubbornly committed to the idea that it's okay for visual art to be funny and entertaining as well as moving. When you see his giant-headed LBJ puppet, it's funny, but it's also exquisitely done and great to look at.

It's hard to make a great documentary about an artist without having it all get so abstract and theoretical that you might as well be listening to a speech. But Beauty Is Embarrassing makes extensive use of White's visually vibrant art, which just keeps coming and coming and exists in his house in every state between concept and completion. (It also makes a nice history of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, by the way.) It remains a story at all times — there's a moment at a book signing that will give you a big smile and goosebumps — and it keeps throwing great things to look at up on the screen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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