There is no shock anymore in the idea that the art museum has opened itself willingly to the spectacle of entertainment, and the demand for art and museums to be “experiential” has come to replace the more historical demands for interpretation and contemplation. We live in a “spectacle society,” and museums are not exceptions. Think back to the multiple fiascos that surround the career of the Museum of Modern Art’s curator-at-large Klaus Biesenbach and his ill-conceived retrospectives for pop cultural icons (such as Bjork) and courting of celebrity in collaborations with Tilda Swinton, Lady Gaga, Kraftwerk, and James Franco. But as critic Hal Foster states, spectacle “shouldn’t be a goal.” The idea that art and entertainment are now “in it together,” is all I could think about wandering around the Hunter Museum of American Art’s current exhibition “Thrill After Thrill: Thirty Years of Wayne White”—an overt homage to Chattanooga’s hometown hero.
While it is certain that art institutions across the Western world are working to increase attendance as public and private support continues to decrease and as trustees urge museum leadership to “engage the community” with more relatable exhibition programming, this presentation of Wayne White’s work at the Hunter forces a questioning of the need and demand to “thrill” and “embarrass” (as his works boldly declare) in the space of the museum.
This mini-retrospective of White’s multifaceted career as art director, set designer, illustrator, puppeteer, and cartoonist for Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Beakman’s World includes a wide range of materials. Included are sketches and drawings, comic books, sculptures, puppets large and small, story boards, music videos, as well as a large sampling of White’s Word Paintings, found landscape reproductions bought for a dime in flea markets and thrift stores to which White adds pithy phrases and words rendered in bright, Day-Glo colors. The work is presented across two galleries, charting a neat developmental path from White’s early foray into animation into more recent engagements with contemporary painting, each idiom marking White’s long-term nostalgia for “Southerness.” White’s technical skill and creativity with a wide variety of media and the inventiveness with which he intervenes and makes his indelible stylistic mark upon a variety of genres are true highlights of this exhibition. A little kitschy, nostalgic, lewd, and willfully naive, White’s work speaks to his upbringing in Tennessee and the monuments to Southern history and tourism that structure so much of the state’s visual lexicon, from Rock City advertisements and Civil War statues to Chattanooga Choo Choo memorabilia and Rockabilly music.
White’s legacy as a designer for television, film, and video is long and rich—and this exhibition establishes that by including recognizable elements of the artist’s infamous collaborations in mass media and television—however, his recent foray into the realm of painting seems to be the most significant curatorial narrative at the Hunter. Represented by Western Project in Los Angeles since 1999, White’s one-man retrospective establishes a trajectory towards blue-chip gallery representation, with painting as the logical conclusion to a busy career in the entertainment industries. While the turn towards acceptance within the bourgeois art world amongst a self-described punk is not a surprising move (John Lydon, Patti Smith, Raymond Pettibon, and Kim Gordon all have gallery representation now), White’s eagerness to test the vitality and sustainability of his twangy Southern vernacular and bawdy sarcasm within the white walls of the art museum was unsuccessful.
An example: upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is greeted by World’s Largest Conestoga Wagon and Hot Dog (1995), a somewhat funny, psychedelic play on the shape of the horse-drawn covered wagon used by early settlers in the Great Appalachian Valley. White has extended it to a silly, exaggerated, and perhaps even grotesque length. His over-amplification of the familiar and his keen eye for rural visual culture asks you to view each of his works as if it’s part of a tall tale—a story, legend, and myth of a place and its forms that have equal footing in historical reality and surrealist fantasy—while his appropriation of a visual symbol with deep ties to a nostalgic ideation of Americana charms the unacademic viewer. This makes for a fun time and indeed constructs a momentary resistance to the austere seriousness contrived in the space of a museum through humor and modesty, but after an entire exhibition of painted one-liners and cartoon corniness, the original spark of White’s gestures fell flat pretty quickly. Again, the modes and vehicles of entertainment—jokes, jabs, and word play in text and image—seem to remain unsuitable for the gallery environment where looking (whether we like it or not) takes precedence over speaking/saying/writing/telling/joking.
However, more than White’s penchant for the play of language is the character and foundations of White’s mythological Southern fantasy and the ways in which those fantasies are represented in the exhibition space. Due to the recent revival of a long-running debate regarding the removal and ideological purpose of monuments to the Southern confederacy, I had a hard time with the constant references to “Southerness” that White is working from and embroidering upon. White’s softly rendered painting Battle of Lookout Mountain (1990) presents the moment just before confrontation between the Confederate and Union armies, their flags seemingly thrusting the individual groups forward. While White has given a majority of the compositional space to the Union Army, his intended subversion of the visual ideologies of “the war of Northern aggression” doesn’t read loudly enough, if indeed it is a subversion at all. Humor isn’t readily apparent, and there isn’t any wall text to help viewers navigate the scene—in fact, the lack of historical context in the gallery is a real problem. For those who want to preserve a narrative of the Civil War as a battle for heritage and state’s rights and not the continuous enslavement of African-Americans for economic gain, this exhibition allows for those kinds of myths to perpetuate without critical and historical engagement. The recycling of old visual imagery of war, honor, and the protection of “what’s yours” isn’t always subversive, but can at times enact mere recapitulation and reproduction of ideologies of whiteness, masculinity, and Southern exceptionalism too.
 See Hal Foster, “After the White Cube,” in The London Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 6, March 19, 2015, pg. 25-26.
“Thrill After Thrill: Thirty Years of Wayne White” is on view at the Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, through December 31.
Jordan Amirkhani is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. In addition to her academic work, she serves as a regular contributor and art critic to many national arts publications, namely, the San Francisco-based contemporary art forum Daily Serving.