Saturday, April 16, 2011

Curious and Curiouser: Wayne White and Sarah Emerson

Herron Galleries in Indianapolis recently exhibited the artwork of Wayne White, Sarah Emerson and Casey Riordan Millard in an exhibition called Curious and Curiouser. Curator Paula Katz has scored another home run with this excellent and unexpected grouping of artwork. The exhibition text describes the artists as featuring "cute" elements in their art, yet using these elements "in a subversive and sometimes abject way." This post will focus on the art of White and Emerson.

Wayne White
has certainly followed an interesting and unusual path to finding his art in galleries. He grew up in northern Alabama and Chattanooga, and was inspired early on by the tourist industry of the latter, and also the bold lettering found in billboard advertisements and product design. In 1986, White got a huge break and was brought on to design sets and characters for Pee Wee's Playhouse. His designs include the iconic floors and wallpaper, which form a huge part of the distinctive visual vocabulary of Pee Wee Herman's world as well as characters such as Randy, Flooree, Mr. Kite, Countess, Roger the Monster, Billy Baloney, the Beatnick Gang, and helping with Klonky the Robot's design, along with contributing voice overs to several characters.
Wayne White and Pee Wee Herman at The Playhouse in the 1980s. Image from Wayne's website

After doing more commercial design work for television as well as creating comics and puppets, White eventually moved onto the canvas and created a body of work that began in 1999 comprised of 350-400 word paintings. White believes that the number one job of the artist is to make beauty. Regarding his artistic intentions, he states "I love humor in work. One of my goals is to bring fine art into the humorous." His word paintings certainly go a long way in achieving this objective. He starts with throwaway kitsch oil paintings that are easily and cheaply obtained, and paints sly, clever, snarky phrases on top of them in daring ways with colors and letter styles that really pop out of the painting and command attention. His wit and humor are equaled by his skilled hand, and the quality of his handiwork would make even the finest graffiti writers envious. He often incorporates two or more different original paintings into one piece, with the wording stretching across all of the canvases.


White engages art history in a clever way with this body of work, humorously slamming artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Donald Judd with his titles and content. Apt comparisons to Ed Ruscha have been made, but White insists he's more inspired by lettering he sees on barns than the work of other artists. Regarding the source paintings he uses, White does not feel that it is disrespectful to paint over the other artists' work (and it would seem audiences are certainly happy that he chose to), but rather that he is having a dialogue with the original artists. Alas, after creating so many word Paintings, White will now be moving on to making more puppets, and he has an upcoming live stage show in LA incorporating these puppets.


Sarah Emerson paints in an incredibly disorienting, eye-catching style that references the paint-by-numbers kits that were likely many people's first foray into painting as children. The themes, however, are much darker. The loss of innocence figures heavily into Emerson's work, as well as natural and unnatural disasters including mudslides and the BP oil spill. Many of her landscapes are depictions of civil war battlefields, but the focus is not as much on the events that occurred on the site as it is on the utter absence of anything living in the space that remains.



In addition to her works on canvas, Emerson enjoys creating murals, such as the stunning Pool of Tears, pictured below, that she created for the exhibition, due in part to the medium's absence of the art historical baggage that accompanies oil on canvas works. Pool of Tears commands attention upon entering the gallery. Three dimensional additions to the mural create relief, and the sprawling colors are truly incredible. The mural was inspired by the BP oil spill in the gulf. "Aside from being connected to the place that it was happening very personally, it was also very direct line with the kind of themes I like to work with anyway: darkness taking over something quite beautiful and then actually retreating and going underneath so it's camouflaged, and it's doing a lot of damage but you don't see it." The plague of locusts in the mural represents the blackness taking over the landscape.


White and Emerson are very different artists certainly, and their bright, eye-catching colors and playful styles contrast quite interestingly with some of the darker themes that exist within their work. Seeing them exhibited together in the same show is unexpected, but it works very well. It will be exciting to see what the future holds for the both of them.

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Wayne White and Sarah Emerson individually. See what they had to say in the videos below:



Sarah Emerson Interview from Austin Dickson on Vimeo.

Images courtesy of Herron Galleries. Thanks to Austin Dickson for photography and video help.

1 Responses to “Curious and Curiouser: Wayne White and Sarah Emerson”

ann on the street said...
April 28, 2011 at 8:53 PM

I love how Wayne White's paintings have a life and depth in them!


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