Matthew Clay-Robison: You said to me recently that many of your artist friends wish they were musicians and many of the musicians you know wish they were artists. Whose career would you rather have: Art Spiegelman or Earl Scruggs?
Wayne White: Art Spiegelman. Drawing is something that I knew before I wanted to play music. I love music, but drawing definitely wins.
MCR: Considering your love of landscapes, maybe the choice should have been Spiegelman versus Thomas Eakins.
WW: Now there I have to call a draw. My whole philosophy is that I don’t want to have to exclude one. I’d like to meld them together.
MCR: That is what you are doing with the word paintings, right? Most of your word paintings are done on found images, but some of the works on canvas also feature landscape elements.
WW: Most of the time they are found, but I have done a series on canvas against romantic skies. They are about the lyrical school of landscape painting. It is one of the oldest games in town. It is really, really hard to find a fresh way to do it, so I respect the genre and I would put it right up there with any other form of art, but of course the art world is about fashion and that kind of thing is way out of fashion. Still, when it is done well it is undeniable. I love pastoral landscapes. I really haven’t changed much from that kid doing the watercolors. Your core feelings don’t change much and childhood is a very important resource for artists. It is tricky to use it because it can curdle instantly, it is delicate stuff, but there is real stuff there. I choose to not deny that kid that loved to do the watercolors. I still am like that and there is no reason to be embarrassed by it, but we are often embarrassed to admit what we find beautiful for various reasons; it’s not in style so you’re out of fashion, it reveals this vulnerable side of you, or a masculine or feminine side of you. We all have secret ideas about beauty and guilty pleasures and they’re embarrassing but we find them beautiful anyways.
MCR: The way that you deal with the found landscapes demonstrates a level of respect. Even though you are having fun with them, the text works so well with the composition and color palette of the original painting that it is seamless and you are clearly very in tune with what is happening in the original. There is a communion between what you are doing and what the original artist did.
WW: Definitely. I am living in that space and painting with the painter almost in a collaborative way rather than defacing it. I am carefully locked into the structure so there is a respect for the artist. I would never paint on an original. I always paint on reproductions because there are millions of them. They are just empty stages really and I’m sure the artist who painted it would agree with me. It is just a commodity. It is not really the object anymore. The fact that I rescue them one step away from the garbage can is an act of redemption in a weird kind of way. It’s a metaphor that I really like; it’s never too low to be understood or found meaning in. I thought of this the other day. I was doing a radio show about music and I did a song from Mary Poppins because the idea of drawing a landscape and jumping into it has been a favorite fantasy of mine since the second grade. I was hypnotized by the masters, and I wanted to jump into those paintings. The idea of total absorption in a landscape or a scene is a huge emotional trigger for me. With the word paintings I am jumping into these pictures and building a sculpture within them when I paint. There is a visceral sense of literally jumping into a picture. That is part of the thrill of painting those works and those landscapes. I am reliving that fantasy of jumping into a chalk drawing on the sidewalk with Mary Poppins, a cute girl.
MCR: You are often very straightforward about identifying artists like Red Grooms who have had a profound influence on your direction as an artist, but I have also heard you caution young artists not to have heroes they are too beholden to. How do you strike that balance?
WW: Well it is important to check out the whole game, all of the players, all of the painters, all of the artists. To look at as many of them as you can, at least for a period of time because you can’t be ignorant about it, you’ve entered into this thing. You are not a folk artist. You are not naïve, you are entering into the art world and the culture of art so you should know what has happened and what is happening now to some extent. You have to know historically who is who and even imitate and copy when you are learning. Don’t be afraid to steal from the best. That is an important part of the education that really never ends. We are always doing that, but what I caution against is falling under the shadow of someone or flagitiously imitating somebody and not being able to find your own voice. The ultimate goal, of course, is to find your voice and that is the trickiest thing you are going to do because all of the voices have been tried. But the miracle of miracles is that you can squeak it and your little squeaking suddenly develops into a sound that is right up there with everybody else. It can happen. The thrill of art is that even after all this time and all these possibilities, you can still find some new way to do it or some fresh way to do it at least.
MCR: I have also heard you advise young artists to surround themselves with people that are better than them. You illustrated that point by sharing the humbling experience you had of going into Art Spiegelman’s class and seeing people who were drawing circles around you and how that made you a better artist. That strikes me as a great piece of advice for our students because there is no point in pursuing an education in art if you’re not willing to give everything to it and challenge yourself and your ego.
WW: I endorse the college experience for young people who are ready to go into a society filled with fellow seekers and survivors for four years. Your fellow students are your fellow survivors and you are all looking for the same kind of answers and you all have the same level of ambition and it’s a concentrated society. It’s not diffused like the real world, so you get a real good look at your generation and what their dreams are and what your possibilities are. On a business level you make your contacts, which is a good thing to do if you really have a dream. It can be a waste of time for some people who don’t know what they want to do and spend all of their time partying and being coddled. That happens a lot. College can be used as an escape from the real world. There are abuses of the opportunity but that’s true with anything, so I think if you have a vision and a dream, college is the best place in the world from 19 to 23 years old. It is incredibly nurturing, especially for the arts. Another thing that I want young people to understand is that there was no “golden age.” Don’t listen to old fogies and old farts tell you there was a golden age and that you’ve missed out on the best of times and that you should have been here in the 50s, 60s, 70s or whatever. That’s just a closed mind and fear of death creeping in. Every generation should see that they have possibilities and it’s their world, not that old fart’s world.
MCR: Your work is playful and also very funny. In the film, you mention that, “people don’t trust laughter or humor in art” and you challenged that attitude by saying that laughter is a very deep thing and we shouldn’t overlook the importance of it. It is deeper than we sometimes give it credit for.
WW: Yes, but the paradox of it is that when you start treating it like that, it’s not funny anymore. It is a very curious phenomenon. Humor is deep and important but it has to be handled lightly, which is often misinterpreted to mean that it is light, but it’s not. There is a lot going on and it’s heavy, holds tons of emotions and gives important insight into human behavior. Humor is one of our most important insights if it is done well at its best. It is a deep and essential thing, but I do find myself thinking that I sound absurd when I start preaching about the sacredness of humor because the old saying is, “humor finds nothing sacred.” It is a paradox but there are many great artists who have used it in one form or another. Not all of my stuff is going for the laughs. I am interested in expressing other things too, but most of my work does deal with humor and I think that is something that people need.
MCR: When I look at your word paintings, some of the word play makes me think about an idea or consider a narrative while others just instantly lead to laughter. Do you crack yourself up as you are thinking of these things? Literally laugh out loud?
WW: Yes, because it is just so pure and exciting and surprising which is the thrill of humor, to be surprised and that’s how laughter starts. You are caught unaware and it’s such an absurd feeling that you spontaneously make this sound and to make someone else do that is one of the greatest human tricks there is. It is really hard to do actually. None of this stuff I am talking about is original to me, these are ideas that I picked up that have been around forever, I am just passing them on.
MCR: Who are some of your favorites artists that have inspired your work?
WW: I started off deep into cartoons and Mad Magazine and comic books, so the first artists that I really admired or even recognized as artists were cartoonists. I idolized Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts. I loved the way he drew and the humor and the storytelling. I also loved the Mad Magazine artists like Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, and Al Jaffee. The list goes on and on. They each had their own distinct style. They were masters of cartooning and illustration and I would copy them. The satirical humor of the 60s Mad Magazine combined with beautiful drawing was a big influence and so I always had a cartoonist kind of eye like so many American kids do. A lot of our first ideas about drawing come from comic books. As I grew older I became more sophisticated with the cartoonists I was looking at. People like George Herriman, Krazy Kat and Robert Crumb, the underground cartoonist, were huge influences. All of the underground cartoonists like S. Clay Wilson, Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Justin Green were influential. When I really got into art, Red Grooms was a very big influence on me. Grooms was from Tennessee so I really identified with him. He was able to take that cartoon energy and turn them into paintings and sculptures in a way that was really unique. The work I am doing now, traveling to different museums and spaces and building on-site installation that are environments is in the tradition of Red and the work he did like, “Ruckus Manhattan” and his “City of Chicago” show of the 60s. I can’t say enough about him. The list goes on and on. I love abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. I love Philip Guston and the way he changed and become this cartoonist expressionist. I love artists who are not afraid to change and make about-faces. I love pop art of course, Ed Ruscha. I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without what he did. I love James Rosenquist, all the pop artists.
MCR: You mentioned earlier how influential cartoonists have been on your work and it’s interesting that you even married a cartoonist/graphic novelist. What has it been like being married to another artist [cartoonist Mimi Pond] whose interests are similar to your own and has major career aspirations of her own? Also, you have two children who are both artists. How do you balance all of that?
WW: Wow. I wish I could say I knew how we did it. It is an ongoing process. I know that much. There is always a new wrinkle or a new problem with artist egos, but I would only want to be married to another artist. This is a very difficult question to answer because we simply did it. We respect and care about each other’s work. We are both very hard workers and we never gave up.
MCR: It seems that your career peaks and valleys have coincided in a way that has allowed each to carry the weight for a period of time and both to keep moving forward.
WW: Well, fortunately, yes that is true. It has worked out economically. Let’s face it, that is the bottom line. When Mimi started raising the kids, I started making money so that helped. Money is important and that’s all there is to it. Also, I was lucky enough to have the kind of jobs that enabled me to help raise the kids. As far as the emotional peaks and valleys, oh my God, don’t get me started. There were so many, most of them mine. Mimi has been an incredible support for me in Hollywood because that place will drive anybody around the bend and she worked there too. She wrote the first full-length episode of The Simpsons. She knows what it is like and having a partner that understands helps you get along.
MCR: Hollywood seems to stay with your work no matter where you go. The large-scale installations you’ve done at Rice University, the Taubman Museum, and the Oklahoma City Museum all have an element of performance and spectacle that remind me of the work you have done for television. When you enter a space like Marketview Arts in York and begin envisioning how you might use it, does your mind go back to building sets for Pee Wee’s Playhouse?
WW: Definitely. I have been doing museum installations for four years, which I am really excited about and I am very happy and lucky to have this new phase. They are very much related to my years of set building in Hollywood, hiring a crew of artists that I can trust and know will do the job, managing a crew of seven to eight odd artists as they build this thing on-site in the room, just like on the sound stage in Hollywood. It is definitely like set building. It also relates to my first year at a natural history museum building exhibits and how to manage that. It is everything else too; painting, sculpture, storytelling and satire, which relates back to the cartooning. Everything is there and because of my years as a set designer I am not intimidated by the space when I walk into the room. I understand scale and how to make it work. It is about projecting into the space. Sound stages are gigantic so you get used to working on them and just yelling louder. Rather than whispering you are yelling and you are singing full throated. It is opera as opposed to a singer/songwriter in a cafe. The thing I always find is I should always build it a quarter bigger than I thought it should be because space can gobble up stuff so fast. You’ve got to dominate. That is really the one word that comes to me whenever I am faced with a large space like Marketview Arts. Dominate.
MCR: So when you walked in there and looked at the space, you thought, “How will I dominate this place?”
WW: Yes, and there are two main modes of domination. You either go monumental with one big thing or you break it down into several complex things. That seems to be the two major modes. There are degrees between the two but on one polar side is making one big ass thing and the other thing is several complex things. I keep them both in mind. It is challenging, especially when you are dealing with the one big thing it has got huge engineering problems because it is so damn big and then the complex thing is really a challenge because you’ve got to make so much stuff. The texture has to get to a certain level and that just means literally making a lot of things.
MCR: When you first walked into this exhibition space at Marketview Arts, did that space immediately suggest to you the ideal form of domination?
WW: It’s rarely ever an immediate response. It takes a little bit of sifting to understand, but my first thought was to have one major horizontal when you first walk in that space to counterbalance the long horizontal thrust of the room. I imagined something really huge starting at the door that draws your eye to the back of the room and then begins to get more complex. That was my initial response, but that can change.
MCR: If we had flipped the exhibitions and shown the word paintings at Marketview and the installation in the campus gallery, would that have completely altered what you have in mind?
WW: Of course, becuse it is a whole other space. The campus gallery would be a good fit for the complex idea of things that are more textural and smaller and you can go from one to the next, whereas with a huge open space like Marketview, you’ve got to go for the “baseball field effect.” When you first walk into the stands at a really great baseball park the scale hits you. That is what you’ve got to go for, the big hit of scale when you first walk in. And then you start looking at the players and the fans.
MCR: Growing up I would go to Fenway Park in Boston to watch the Red Sox and it was always such a magical moment to walk through the gate and catch a glimpse of the field.
WW: For an artist to capture that feeling with an installation would really be something. It is that first look, the big reveal that is so important. That is my showmanship talking, but I suppose the relative importance of that moment could be debated.
MCR: No, I get that. Every time I install a show I always keep walking back to the point where a person, upon entering, will become aware of the space and have their first impression. I scan the room from that vantage point and make adjustments accordingly because I want that first moment of getting a glimpse to be impressive.
WW: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. There are other ideas about installation, but for me the first few seconds are so crucial. It has got to hit you right away.
MCR: Speaking of making an impression, we have discussed the way a space makes an impression on you, but how about the way a town or city makes an impression on you? How does your early impression of the area where you’ll be installing a big show influence the content of the show?
WW: Well, that is how I am in the tradition of Red Grooms, because his installations reflected the city he was in. He went to Chicago and New York at the Whitney Museum and he did several other smaller scale things and they were all about the regional history and environment that he was working in and reacting to it and I have done the same. George Jones got started in Houston, Texas, so that became the subject of the show at Rice University. The Taubman Museum installation was about the boomtown of Roanoke, Virginia when it was called Big Lick and became Roanoke overnight with industry from the railroads. At the Oklahoma City Museum of Art I made “Halo Amok,” a cubist cowboy rodeo. I even used the color palette of the reds and browns of the local dirt and landscape. The installation in York will tell a narrative about York. I love history and history is the greatest storytelling there is and I like going to the new place and reacting to its stories. That is such a natural thing. Again, this is the influence of Red Grooms. Also, I just love the history of any place. I definitely want to have a York story in there and I will do a lot of reading and research about York to give balance to my visceral impression of the place. That is important too. I wouldn’t do it any other way.
MCR: When you left York last June, after your first visit, you had a few ideas in mind. Some of the ideas you were considering involved the Pennsylvania landscape painting tradition and telling a story using large letterforms. How did you arrive at the concept for “FOE?”
WW: My first idea when I visited York was to create some giant letters, but to tell you the truth, I was getting a little tired of letterforms. They just weren’t inspiring me because I had reached a saturation point with them. I couldn’t get inspired. I naturally became interested in the history of York because I always tell something about the history of the place in my installations. I had thought I would tell a story of York’s history using the letterforms, but I just didn’t feel a spark. It didn’t seem like it would really tell the history of the place. I gravitated toward the Civil War history of York because I am naturally interested in that subject. Civil War history was a big part of my childhood growing up in Chattanooga. As I have said several times, I associate a sense of the past and the romance of history with art-making. The two are linked for me and went hand in hand in my childhood as an artist drawing pictures of the Civil War, of soldiers, Cherokee Indians, cowboys. So, it was natural that I became interested in the Civil War history of York and it also gave me a chance to make giant figurative sculptures and puppets. I also saw the opportunity to use this as a metaphor for myself as a Southerner coming to York doing an exhibition about Southerners coming to York. History, puppets, sculpture, painting – these are the things I always come back to.
MCR: How did you arrive at the gestures of the figures? One is pulling on a pair of boots, another is stealing a pig and the articulation of these figures is very expressive. How did those figures emerge from your sketchbook?
WW: I was naturally drawn to the story of how the soldiers plundered the town and were so overwhelmed by the material richness of the place and the fact that there were factory goods everywhere. It was a culture shock to enter this place of riches and material abundance. I want to capture the joy and revelry of the experience and the looting. That is kind of what art is. It is like reveling in material stuff and enjoying cool objects. Art is very material in that sense and it can get very decadent in a way. I am making a comment on the fact that art is a decadent indulgence just like these soldiers are having a decadent good time pulling on new shoes and I wanted a gesture that would work as a puppet. I thought of the act of pulling on a shoes and what a universal gesture and motion that is. Everyone does this every morning of their lives whether they’re pulling on socks or shoes. Everyone everywhere across the world does this, so it is this big universal gesture just like waving or holding a baby or brushing your teeth. What is more human than pulling on a shoe? Having a big symbol of humanity pulling on a shoe just seemed right to me and I wanted a puppet that would be interactive. There will be other interactive puppets as well. There will be some marionettes that dance when you pull on a rope. Then there is the guy stealing a pig and a pie. He is like a mobile that moves on his own. He is balanced in space and his head bobs and his body bobs. It is also a sly reference to the football culture that is so important to both Pennsylvania and the South. He has this pig tucked under his arm and he is running like a football player except he has an actual pig instead of just the skin. Then there is the welcome gesture of General Jubal Early with his hand extended out as if to say, “Give me the money.” You have to enter through his legs to come in. I love the idea of a “Colossus of Rhodes, Jolly Green Giant” type of figure standing astride the world. I love that gesture. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m going to do ahead of time. These kinds of ideas and gestures blossom in the space. They’re not fully formed conceptually until I get started and then the meaning emerges from the materials. We’re using a lot of corrugated cardboard and York has a big corrugated container industry. It is an industrial town. Everything we are doing here uses materials that link to the town in a very material, visceral kind of way.
MCR: The Jubal figure’s head just about touches the ceiling, so it is a huge structure but it appears even larger because of the use of three-point perspective. Is that how you sketched him out or is that an example of something evolving in the space?
WW: I made a small model of him. I love using illusions to make things appear bigger. It is somewhat inspired by Disneyland where the main street is scaled down ever so slightly and the second floors are scaled down ever so slightly so it makes the buildings seem bigger than they really are. They use really subtle changes in scale and it is all an illusion. That is a trick that architects use also. I love playing with scale. I like making really big things, but I also love tiny things that you can peak into like a little peep show. I love pushing scale to the extreme. It is such a human impulse to respond to scale; Is it bigger than me? Is it smaller than me? Can I climb on it? Can I overpower it? We’re always relating things to our bodies. That is very much what art does. It relates to the body and to the mind. I personally just love the spectacle of big things. I always say, “Who doesn’t love a big puppet? It’s fun. It makes you feel like a kid again.” When you’re a kid everything towers over you and it feels like magic.