“That’s what art really tries to do. Just strip away all the pretense and it’s trying to entertain and excite.” A Two-Part Interview with Wayne White

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Part Two:

III. Wayne White Cannot Lie

THE BELIEVER: Thinking about all of the different puppets that you have made, is there a form of puppet that you still want to try?

WAYNE WHITE: Well, not really. I think I’ve done a little bit of all the styles: marionettes, hand puppets, costumes, masks, even stop motion stuff. I like the narrow range of those, I think there’s ton of possibilities there. I think that the most exotic puppet we ever tried was the underwater puppet, the Fish on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. That was a real challenge and I was a mere collaborator on that.

BLVR: What was new about trying to operate a puppet underwater?

WW: Well where the rod would go into the tank, it was tricky to get the rod to go in through the glass without it leaking. I had other guys help me on that. No, I’m pleased with the narrow range of techniques that I know of. [Pause] I would like to try to do some shadow puppets, that’s one thing I’ve never really done that much of. Gary Panter’s really into that, he’s done a lot of shadow puppetry, and I would like to try that.

BLVR: Puppets are part of the installations that you’ve done recently at Rice Gallery and the Taubman Museum. I’ve seen the giant George Jones head that you made at Rice referred to as a giant puppet. Do you see it as a puppet? Or is it a kinetic sculpture, or something else?

WW: I see it as both. First of all I think of puppets as sculpture. They are sculpture that moves. You could label it any way you want, but for me it always starts in my mind as a sculpture. As I think of it as pure form then ideas for performance come out of that. It’s always the form and the visuals and that’s why I like to make puppets in a gallery or museum. They’re not often in those contexts. So it’s like, what it is? Is it a sculpture or a puppet? It works as both. The George Jones piece was definitely like that; a puppet, yet it was also a giant sculptural object. I like to blend the two together. I like hybrids. I like things that move. I like shiny things. [Laughs]

BLVR: I think that artists are used to thinking in both/and situations instead of either/or situations. It sounds that with this hybrid form you’re making, it’s not trying to be one thing, it’s trying to be many things.

WW: Exactly. I think that’s what art should go for. Art should be as inclusive as possible. That’s why I like bringing the low form of puppetry and elevating it into a sculpture form, but it’s still a puppet also. With the George Jones piece and the Taubman museum piece the viewer can pull ropes and actually manipulate the puppets themselves. I think that’s a real exciting thing, to be able to manipulate the puppet, especially if it’s big. Scale is really on my mind all the time. I like big puppets.

BLVR: And you cannot lie. [Laughs] Sorry.

WW: I like big puppets and I cannot lie! [Laughs] I feel the George Jones sculpture is the world’s largest George Jones head.

BLVR: I think that you have the record on that.

WW: I do, definitely. That’s also harkening back to my childhood in Chattanooga, the tourist attractions that I grew up with in the South. You know, “See the world’s largest! See! See! See!” The roadside attraction is a big influence on me. It was really kind of my first art experience. I consider those art because they take an element of the landscape or history and heightens it, and isn’t that what art does? It takes elements of life and heightens them.

BLVR: Are there any attractions that you remember most vividly?

WW: Well there was one called Confederama in Chattanooga. This dark room with little toy soldier dioramas and landscapes on tabletops of Civil War battles. I found that very dramatic and exciting. There was this place called the Georgia Game Park just South of Chattanooga. For miles and miles down the state highway there’d be “See two-headed calf! See three-legged dog! See!” Every 50 yards there’d be a sign. That was a big influence on me with my paintings. The excitement of the come on, the giant letters by the roadside. Then of course there’s South of the Border in South Carolina. A giant Mexican guy standing there next to the South of the Border sign. Any kind of giant figure like that is burned into my memory. [Pause] Of course miniature golf was big for me too in Chattanooga. I still get excited when I see miniature golf courses on the highway. The windmills, and castles, and dinosaurs. It’s a sculpture park.

They’re beautiful and they’re not trying necessarily to be aesthetic, they’re just trying to entertain and excite. That’s what art really tries to do. Just strip away all the pretense and it’s trying to entertain and excite. I don’t have an intellectual approach at all to art; I have a spectacle-oriented approach to art. Maybe you can analyze and try to find meaning in it, but number one it has to jump out at you. That’s where scale and movement comes in.

IV. Anti-Puppetry

BLVR: Puppets play a central role in Big Lick Boom, your recent installation at the Taubman Museum. Where did the puppets come into the creation process of realizing that installation?

WW: Again, that’s very much influenced by miniature golf courses. The cartoon expressionism of the buildings, and the figures, and everything. The puppets came in because when I do a big installation I always some want sort of participatory element. A giant marionette, you can pull a rope and make him move. Static puppets, I wanted them to move, they’re looking out the windows, but we didn’t have time to rig those. I have more ideas than I can execute also every time that I do anything. I put the puppets in because people love ‘em. I’m a populist in that sense. I want to reach out and entertain people. I want people to come to a museum that have never been in a museum before. I want also to have enough art references in it that would satisfy the most sophisticated museum goer. I’m also influenced by Red Grooms. I worked for Red my first year in New York. I think that a lot of ideas and influences from Red are about how to get the exuberance of a cartoon into three-dimensions.

BLVR: From the performance lecture that I saw you give in Detroit this past spring, puppets don’t really seem to come up in that form of your work. Is that intentional?

WW: Actually I would like to introduce puppets. [Laughs] I just haven’t had the time or the resources to pull that off yet. I do an hour-long monologue that’s used as a structural narrative for the movie and there are puppets in that. I pre-recorded a puppet on the screen and I talked to him. That’s one of my red-neck, Southern Daddy puppets. He interrupts my high-falutin art talk and wants to know what the hell I’m doing.

BLVR: So I’ve just missed the puppets. I’m glad they’re in there too.

WW: I would love to introduce a puppet in that performance I do with the Shaking Ray Levis where I play the banjo. I guess I’m sort of a human puppet in that sense. [Laughs]

BLVR: That was a thought I had, that you’re performing yourself in a puppet-like way. I’m glad you said it.

WW: I mean I throw dignity out the window, and just become a creature of the moment on the stage. I act like I’d never act in real life. I become exaggerated, and loud, and obnoxious, and full of the spirit of improvisation. That’s one of the weird things about performing, I think that any performer will say the same thing when you’re on stage in front of a crowd there’s a certain moment when you kind of click into a trance-like state and you just kind of go with it. I love getting into that mode. It’s transcendental.

BLVR: In the interview in the monograph that Todd Oldham did, he asks you what’s next for you and you mention wanting to do more puppet shows. That’s the time period before the documentary came out. Have you been able to do more puppet shows?

WW: No, I haven’t and that’s why I keep putting the puppets into some of my installations. [Laughs] I have all these other things I’m doing, paintings and printmaking. Painting takes up most of my time now really. I would love to do a puppet show, I just don’t have the time. It’s very hard work to put together a puppet show. The latest one I did was Rebel vs. Yankee which is also being performed at the Taubman Museum, again a throw-back to the early punk rock shows. It’s also, influenced by these Italian street art puppet shows with knights that fight each other, Opera dei Pupi. It’s these almost life-size knights that just bang the shit out of each other with swords. [Laughs] It’s a very macho sort of puppeteering because these knight puppets weigh a ton so these big burly guys are holding these knights up. So I wanted to do my version of it with Civil War soldiers.

BLVR: The back of the set they are in shows the marks from their swords from their previous battles.

WW: Yes, I love that. I love the evidence of the struggle, I love beat up stuff. I love relics that show the wear and tear of real life. I love the idea of something that’s been abused because it’s such a perfect metaphor for human beings. We’re all this scarred shit and put back together kind of creatures. I hate pristine stuff. I like the wear and tear. I think it’s beautiful.

BLVR: Do you have any advice for potential puppeteers out there?

WW: [Laughs] I’m probably the worst person in the world to give advice to puppeteers. My whole attitude towards puppets from the beginning was not one of love, but it was like anti-puppetry. I wanted to deconstruct the puppet show. I wanted to turn it inside out and do stuff that you’re not supposed to do. I didn’t want it to be gentle like most puppet shows tend to be, since they come from childhood where you’re gently trying to tell a story. I wanted to blast all that out of the water. I think there’s plenty of room of any kind of attitude toward puppets. I call puppeteering acting while hiding. [Laughs]

You’re free because you don’t have to expose yourself, and you can go wild, and let your id completely out of its box, and nobody will see you because you’re operating through a surrogate. It’s an opportunity to crack open your shell, to melt down yourself, and just let yourself go. It’s a form of catharsis for me.

BLVR: So bring on the puppet revolution?

WW: [Laughs] That’s why they’re used as therapy. They allow a person to express things through this surrogate that wouldn’t normally get expressed. You know there’s famous techniques of puppet therapists. Put this hand puppet on and tell me what the problem is. I would advise puppeteering for any artist. It’s a way to break down pretensions. It’s a sculpture that can talk. It’s a painting that can talk. And it’s pure play. I think every artist needs to stay in touch with the idea of playing. The artist should always be playing, always. All art is performance.

Julie Thomson is a writer and independent art historian who lives in Durham, NC. Her writing has appeared in Raw Vision, Art Lies, …might be good, the Independent Weekly, and the Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. Follow her on Twitter @JulieJThomsonNC.

Image Credit: Commission, Rice University Art Gallery. Photo: Nash Baker © nashbaker.com

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