Pop culture meets history in eye-popping exhibition

Art star Wayne White gets first solo show in his hometown of Chattanooga

Even if you’re not familiar with his name, chances are you’ve seen the work of artist Wayne White.

That fact alone tells you something about the unusual career of the Chattanooga native, who is currently getting his first solo museum show, “Thrill After Thrill: Thirty Years of Wayne White,” at his hometown’s Hunter Museum of American Art.

“I was an angry young man, and I couldn’t wait to get out of Chattanooga in the late ’70s,” says White from his current home in Los Angeles. “To have all that path heal up and everyone welcoming me back, it’s quite a feeling. I was this blue-collar kid from Chattanooga, and I went out into the world and now I’m being celebrated by my hometown. I’m still kind of sorting it all out.”

White is perhaps best known as the visual designer and puppeteer behind “PeeWee’s Playhouse,” which ran on television in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but his long, prolific and varied career encompasses everything under the sun, from comics and abstract art to sculpture, installations, album covers, advertisements, music videos and more. He’s won four Emmys for his television work, and the word paintings he began making in the 1990s helped usher him into the art world. He’s achieved renown in a number of realms and in various media, but a 2012 documentary about his life titled “Beauty is Embarrassing” brought a whole new level of attention to his peripatetic career.

White grew up just north of Chattanooga in the suburban town of Hixson, Tennessee. From the very beginning, he says, he was always drawing.

“I just took to drawing instinctively,” he says. “I can’t explain that. It’s all I’ve ever known since I was 2 or 3 years old. People’s reactions to it just cinched the deal. I soon learned that I did have this talent that made me stand out. Every kid needs an angle. Every kid needs some kind of identity to survive. It’s the way I navigate the world. I’m constantly drawing.”

Chattanooga lately has been experiencing something of a cultural renaissance, but there were few artistic outlets there in the 1960s of White’s youth.

“The tourist attractions of Chattanooga were my first idea of art,” says White, referring to local attractions such as Rock City and Ruby Falls. “They took local history and landscape and stories and myths, and they heightened them and made them sexier and more exciting and put them in these carefully lit, controlled environments, and they charged you money to come see them. They were an art form.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, White has created his own tourist attraction, Wayne-O-Rama, a large-scale, immersive art installation on Chattanooga’s Southside. The installation includes huge cardboard heads of figures from Chattanooga’s history, including Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe and newspaper publisher Adolph Ochs, a sculpture of singer Bessie Smith and a large model of Lookout Mountain featuring details of the roadside attractions of Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Incline Railroad.

The name Wayne-O-Rama derives from an especially kitschy, now closed Chattanooga Civil War tourist attraction from White’s youth called Confederama.

“It looked so great from the outside, like this magical castle,” says White. “I loved the myth and the drama of the Civil War as a kid. And then you went through the doors, and it was just this disappointing tabletop landscape. The disappointment of that is humorous to me. It’s so symbolic of life, the whole ‘paper moon’ thing. I love the pathos of the phony facade. Something about it endears me to it.”

Wayne-O-Rama is currently slated to run through October 1 alongside the exhibition, but there are hopes of moving it to a larger location where it could remain indefinitely. “I would love for Wayne-O-Rama and Wayne White’s vision of a tourist attraction for Chattanooga to become a part of the city,” says White. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of ever since I was 3 or 4 years old going to Rock City and Ruby Falls.”

The exhibition at the Hunter Museum gives visitors a deeper look into White’s colorful, playful aesthetic. His inventive cardboard sculptures and puppets, his many paintings and drawings, his work as an illustrator and his design work for television and music videos are all on display. Central to the show are his word paintings in which he takes cheap, mass-produced reproductions of landscape paintings that he finds in thrift stores and paints phrases or words on them in glossy letters.

The reproductions are “just kind of anonymous, mass-manufactured objects,” White says. “I like that. I like that sense of salvation. You saw them somewhere, your auntie’s house or the dentist’s office. They’re this piece of shared consciousness. That’s like a metaphor for the American experience, and my paintings are very much about my American experience. I see them almost as a metaphor for my life. Kind of low-rent that has been transformed, and now it’s art.”

The 2012 film about White’s life, “Beauty is Embarrassing,” directed by Neil Berkeley, was a hit by contemporary documentary standards. It premiered at Austin’s South by Southwest festival, had a successful theatrical release and eventually aired on PBS stations across the country. Though he has deep reservations about the new phase of his life, the success of the documentary has opened up another, very different role in his multivalent career: that of art world celebrity.

“It made me a public figure,” says White. “A minor one, but still I’m learning what that means, and I’m learning how to accept the role graciously, to try to keep helping people without being an (expletive) about it. There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with being a public figure. It’s a form of power, and we all know how power is abused.”

White gave a popular Ted Talk in 2013, and he occasionally travels the country giving speeches about his work, including an upcoming appearance at Hunter Museum on Aug. 24.

“I never set out to be an inspirational figure,” he sayd. “I think anyone that does is suspect, like preachers or motivational speakers. That whole crowd gives me the creeps. It’s kind of a con man role. To find myself in that same role is kind of disconcerting. I’m not going to complain because ultimately it’s been a joy. It’s been a huge honor to help other artists. I still don’t want to be considered like a motivational speaker, but I guess I am. I try to do it in my own kind of way.”

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