Neil Berkeley’s Beauty Is Embarrassing is less a documentary on artist/designer Wayne White than it is a celebration of this determinedly quirky artist — and man — whose name you may not know, but whose work already has some niches in your memory. You’ve seen his work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, in the Peter Gabriel “Big Time” video and in the striking Smashing Pumpkins video based on Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902). Words like “whimsical” and “playful” come to mind when describing his work — and the man depicted here seems to fit those terms, too. If Berkeley’s documentary itself is of the straightforward variety, its only flourish is framing the story of White around one of the artist’s personal appearances, and the film (like the appearance) makes you wait until the end to explain what “Beauty is embarrassing” means (And that might be for the best). It doesn’t need to compete with White for quirkiness, and any such attempt would have undoubtedly lost the competition.
White himself has no great message to deliver — apart from his “just get out there and do what you love” credo. He is equal parts plain-spoken provocateur and self-deprecating artist. White has moved through just about every phase of the art world and has somehow managed to crack the world of serious art with playfully outrageous paintings — and even pictures that are made from mass-produced crummy sub-Thomas Kinkade style landscapes which he has painted (and cleverly reconfigured) lettered slogans to his own ends. These seem to be as much comments on the snobby nature of the art world (for which he has no reverence) as they are on the mid-cult mentality expressed in the bad paintings he’s working from — or maybe on. At the same time, it’s debatable if his cheerfully cheeky — and frequently f-word and even c-word festooned — paintings are really meant to comment on anything other than his own joy in creating them.
White is — as the film demonstrates — equally at home playing the banjo, telling stories and playing the role of a kind of profanity-spouting professional Southerner. (Though born in Alabama and raised in Tennessee, White admits he didn’t really discover his Southern roots until he left the South.) His raconteur style is at once self-deprecating and the perfect embodiment of a man who isn’t interested in taking shit from anybody. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one he plays to perfection — perhaps because he really is really just being himself.
This isn’t necessarily a life-altering work, but there’s no denying that the fun White gets out of his work is pretty irresistible, maybe even infectious. Yes, there are glimmerings of the “tortured” artist buried within some of White’s musings about himself and his life, but they serve as much for background for stories that amuse White himself as anything else. This is definitely worth making the time to see in this crowded movie month. Not Rated but contains enough swearing to warrant an R.