Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing is as puckish as its subject, so steeped in artist Wayne White’s creative juices that it makes you want to go straight home and start making things. With his bright blue eyes, mountain-man beard, gently sardonic humor, and highly calibrated bullshit meter, White comes off as a funny, charismatic, endlessly inventive character, though he’s also a bit of a curmudgeon. In the words of Matt Groenig, one of several semi-underground art stars who contribute funny, insightful quotes throughout the documentary, he’s “a little Zach Galifianakis, a little Snuffy Smith, a little Unabomber.”
Beauty Is Embarrassing gives you the pleasantly disorienting sense of being introduced to someone you hadn’t realized that you already knew. A born artist without an “off” switch, White works with whatever materials he finds at hand (his wife Mimi tells the camera she can never throw anything away, because that pile of trash in a corner might look like raw materials to him). His puppets, paintings, cartoons, and sticks-and-string constructions are full of life and almost always funny. “My mission,” he says, “is to put humor into fine art.”
A format he stumbled upon a few years ago, buying generic landscapes at garage sales and then painting over them with phrases like “Maybe now I’ll get the respect I so richly deserve,” clicked with the gatekeepers of the art world, making him rich and famous, or as close as he’s ever gotten. But you’re more likely to recognize the seminal work he did in the ‘80s and ‘90s: the candy-colored, borderline manic mix of stop-motion puppetry, animation, anthropomorphic objects, and visual overstimulation he helped pioneer in Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” music video and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Even White’s grounded, funny wife turns out to be that Mimi: gifted cartoonist Mimi Pond, whose work ran in a lot of alternative papers a decade or two ago.
Berkeley finds interesting ways to introduce us to White and his work, going home with him to Tennessee and showing excerpts from a one-man show he encouraged White to develop about his life, which involves a slide show, a lot of very funny commentary, and some surprisingly good banjo playing. As Todd Oldham says of White: “There’s nothing amateurish about anything he does.” The same can be said of the film. Though it was shot on a tiny budget and almost entirely on a $600 Canon Vixia consumer videocam, Beauty Is Embarrassing always seems to know where it’s going and how to get there. Berkeley makes good use of happy accidents, like the suspense that builds up when White’s beloved first-grade teacher appears at a book singing, standing in the background for a long minute or so before introducing herself to the delighted White. He avoids overreliance on talking heads, using animated reenactments of several seminal events, including a cartoon version of White and Pond’s early romance that was drawn by Pond. And he gives us plenty of footage of White making things and playing with his creations.
Watching White gaze at a giant papier-mâché LBJ puppet he made while psychoanalyzing the man, you sense how his puppets help him dilute the power of the people—Southern patriarchs, mostly—he’s felt oppressed by, defeating his demons through humor. “I’ll settle for laughter any day,” he says. “Laughter is a deep thing.”