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American Beauty

Pee-Wee puppeteer, banjo picker, Pop Art innovator and family man: Wayne White.

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It's hard to not be thoroughly charmed, inspired, and humbled by Wayne White, the Pop Art innovator and central figure in Neil Berkeley's documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing. These days, White's probably best known as "that guy who paints funny dirty words on all those crappy mass-produced landscape paintings." Even if you don't recognize his name, if you've got a Facebook account or an email address, you've seen his painting of hunting dogs posing in a field next to the capital letters LSD. That's classic White. And it's just an appetizer.

In a past life, before his seemingly inevitable second act as a painter and artist of note, this wild-eyed Southern boy from Chattanooga won three Emmy awards for his work as a puppeteer and designer for Pee-Wee's Playhouse. His TV design credits included Riders in the Sky, Beakman's World, and Shining Time Station, a PBS series that featured both George Carlin and Ringo Star as a tiny train conductor who lives inside a mural. White also art-directed Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" video, and Smashing Pumpkins' beautiful, Georges Méliès-inspired "Tonight Tonight" video. As Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh modestly puts it, there was a time in the 1980s and '90s when young brains everywhere were "mainlining" White's aesthetic, "and they didn't even know it."

Berkeley takes his title from one of White's commissioned works, and in an early scene the artist asks himself what he means by "beauty is embarrassing." Like a seasoned performer who knows how to build to the punch line, he promises to explain it all later. And, in what might be described as the film's victory lap, he does just that. Beautifully.

With his characteristic knack for caricature, Simpsons creator Matt Groening describes White as "a little Zach Galifianakis, a little Snuffy Smith, and a little Unabomber." White describes himself as an artist who didn't know how Southern he was until he went North.

Beauty Is Embarrassing is a disarmingly complicated portrait of a creative misfit, rebel, pioneer, and devoted family man who may have stumbled on the secrets of true happiness. White's work pulls double duty as much-needed comic relief in the too-serious art world and an expression of his identity as a multidimensional artist and displaced Southern man.

"Art's not supposed to entertain. It's supposed to question core values," White snipes, echoing his critics in a sarcastic rant that ends with an eye-rolling "blah-fucking-blah." He thinks people undervalue laughter, and it's clear, whether he's puppeteering a giant butt-scratching Lyndon B. Johnson or dancing like a fool for the cameras, he'll happily risk a little personal embarrassment to keep from being bored or boring.

So why is beauty embarrassing? To find out, you'll need to spend some time with Wayne White when the Brooks Museum of Art screens this funny, irreverent, and insightful doc about a man who's done quite well for himself transforming serious silliness into serious business.

Beauty Is Embarrassing
Brooks Museum of Art
Sunday, March 17th
2 p.m., $15 or $12 for members
Wayne White will conduct a Q&A session after the screening.

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