As the old cliche goes, Wayne White has worn many hats in his three-decade artistic career: illustrator, animator, puppet engineer, production designer, painter.
For his return to the Sooner State, White, 55, broke out his trusty 12-year-old cowboy hat to get in the spirit of creating a “cubist cowboy rodeo” at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
“I've always loved rodeos. One of my earliest memories is going to a rodeo in Tennessee and I was fascinated by them when I was a kid,” White said earlier this month, standing under his giant sculpture of a bull rider in one of the museum's third-floor galleries.
“You don't have to know anything about art, just come in and enjoy it. And if you do know stuff about art, you can enjoy the art references: There are references to Picasso and expressionism and everything else, hard-edge geometric art. You know, pick your theme. It's all there, too.”
“I like to think as an artist everything you've done in the past just always stays with you in your work, and this is definitely true of this,” he added. “My 25 years of working in Hollywood is definitely evident. I see it like in the puppets from all those TV shows. ... Even my years as a cartoonist are somewhat in there, and certainly my experience as a sculptor and a painter, that's evident also. So it's all in there in the mix.”
The letters of “Oklahoma” are mixed up in the exhibit's title, too. “HALO AMOK: A Puppet Installation by Wayne White,” part of the museum's New Frontiers Series for Contemporary Art, opens Thursday at the museum. Film curator Brian Hearn, who is curating the temporary site-specific installation, said the goal of the series is to connect museum patrons with the work of living artists.
“One of the things that attracted me to Wayne's work is just the humor element, which is sorely lacking in the art world,” he said.
“HALO AMOK” is opening at the start of the 13th Annual deadCenter Film Festival, which counts the museum as one of its screening sites. The timing is deliberate and appropriate since White first came to Oklahoma City last year with the festival's showing of his documentary “Beauty Is Embarrassing.”
Directed by Moore native Neil Berkeley, the film chronicles White's wildly varied career, which includes earning three Emmys as a designer for the influential TV show “Pee-Wee's Playhouse,” winning Billboard and MTV Music Video Awards as an art director for seminal music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins' “Tonight, Tonight” and Peter Gabriel's “Big Time,” and transitioning into fine arts with his distinctive word paintings.
“I've never felt like there's any real distinction between low and high art 'cause I've lived in both worlds and I see the craft involved. I don't make a distinction between them at all. I like to mash ‘em all together as much as I can,” White said.
The Tennessee native spent much of last year touring with the documentary, but he formed a special bond with Oklahoma, in part because of Berkeley's roots here. When the museum invited him to spend a month there building an installation, he eagerly accepted.
“I've made a lot of friends here, and I like it a lot,” he said. “They totally get me. They have the same kind of spirit I have.”
The artist also relates to the spirit of the cowboy. As a child of the 1950s and '60s, he grew up watching a lot of Westerns on TV, and he even worked in the early '90s on a short-lived CBS children's show starring “comedy and Western” band Riders in the Sky.
“Everybody loves cowboys. I mean, come on,” he said. “I've always drawn them. I love drawing the cowboy hat and the horse. And the forms, they're just great. They're just undeniable. They were always on my mind, so Oklahoma was the perfect place to expand it into a bigger thing.”
Plus, a rodeo show was the perfect venue for creating not just large-scale sculptures but large-scale sculptural puppets. Visitors will be able to use ropes to make the giant horse kick, the bull buck and the cowboy twirl his lasso.
“A rodeo is nothing but kinetic, and that's also a nice link with the puppeteering and the movement and the kinetic, movability of the sculpture. It also relates back to the title again, the scrambled letters. A rodeo is very much about a kind of scramble, in so many ways, you know, a very energetic shake-up of reality,” he said, as museum staffers rigged pulleys and assembled the wood-and-cardboard puppets. “That's also a metaphor for making art: coming in here for a month, scrambling to get it done, hopping on this idea like a horse and riding it ‘til you feel like you're done. I like an idea that reverberates like that, that you can play with, that has different levels to it. I always try to relate it to making art.”
He also wants visitors of all ages and experience levels to relate to his art — and have fun doing it.
“When I do these big public installations like this at museums, I definitely want a sense of participation with the audience. I like to think of it as the circus coming to town ... and I like to throw up as big a tent as possible,” he said.
“I like to have something that everybody can enjoy. I think you can enjoy this if you've never been to a museum before in your life or if you've never heard of cubism or if you don't care anything about modern art. You can still walk in here and enjoy it for what it is and get a kick out of playing with the puppets. Maybe it'll even open up a door, maybe it'll even make you more curious about modern art or cubism.
“But that's neither here or there. I just want to entertain.”