I’ll never forget the first time I saw a painting by René Magritte. I was a very young boy when I first encountered his 1938 masterwork, “Time Transfixed,” on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. Nearly every detail on the canvas was portrayed in a straightforward manner, yet it was the startling juxtaposition of imagery that made Magritte’s masterwork a landmark achievement in surrealism. His depiction of a locomotive roaring out of a common fireplace gave me years of eerie train-related nightmares.
It is precisely this sort of juxtaposition that makes the richly vibrant work of Wayne White so utterly irresistible. He made quite a splash in the art world with his humorous, dazzlingly composed distortions of thrift store lithographs. Upon placid, tranquil landscapes, White paints absurdist phrases in enormous, three-dimensional lettering that actually manage to enhance the original painting’s limited depth. White’s anarchic love of the F-word is readily apparent in his work. One of his funniest paintings shows an expansive body of water crowded with various gleaming copies of the phrase, “F–k You.” The painting’s title? “F–k You Invasion.”
If that title made you smile, then you are guaranteed to be delighted by Neil Berkeley’s enormously affectionate documentary chronicling the life and career(s) of White. He may not yet be a household name, but his work has had a profound influence on the culture. Long before he averted his primary attention to paintings, White was illustrating cartoons for “The New York Times” and garnering Emmys for his groundbreaking set and puppet design on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.”
Some of the funniest highlights in Berkeley’s documentary are the candid, behind-the-scenes footage of the “Playhouse” set, which benefited greatly from the chaos of its cramped New York location during the show’s first season. White admitted that he had no idea what he was doing at the time, yet the spontaneity of his handcrafted marvels (he made Dirty Dog out of an oven mitt) brought a wondrously offbeat charm to the show as a whole. “Pee-Wee” fans will especially love hearing White break into the fiendishly mischievous voice of the Playhouse’s big-headed marionette, Randy (turns out White voiced many of the puppets as well).
One of the most engaging aspects of Berkeley’s film is the way in which it combines various styles of animation with a level of ingenuity evocative of White’s own diverse creations. White and his wife, “Simpsons” writer Mimi Pond, reminisce about how they first met in a series of lovely line drawings, while a traumatic car accident from White’s childhood is envisioned through altogether different imagery. It’s suggested that this jarring event gave White a hyperawareness of life’s inherent fragility and an unslakable desire to make every moment count.
Chockfull of interviews with key collaborators such as Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who helmed the acclaimed Smashing Pumpkins music video, “Tonight, Tonight,” showcasing White’s Méliès-inspired effects) and Matt Groening (who aptly describes White as “part Zach Galifianakis, part Unabomber”), “Beauty is Embarrassing” is a loving ode to the transformative power of a stubbornly resilient artistic drive. It’s wonderful to see White’s fantastical creations come to life, ambling along an ordinary road like expletives on a lithograph.
Editor’s note: Due to CFCA voting and screening season, this week’s podcast has been postponed. Stay tuned next week for an in-depth conversation with “Scrooge & Marley” co-director (and “Windy City Times” film critic) Richard Knight, Jr.