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‘Beauty’ pops with the somewhat normal life of painter/puppeteer Wayne White

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Future You Pictures presents a documentary written and directed by Neil Berkeley. Running time: 89 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opening Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: January 15, 2013 11:19AM

Surprisingly charming for an artist whose work spills over with four-letter provocations, painter Wayne White emerges as an unsung force of nature in Neil Berkeley’s zippy, delightful “Beauty Is Embarrassing.” The documentary exudes the relieved good vibes of a narrowly averted tragedy, and has a broad enough appeal to draw arthouse audiences from both high-falutin’ and punk-rock constituencies.

White, described by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo as a “founding father” of Pop Art’s current generation, is known for dryly funny paintings that pair thrift-store landscapes with messages spelled out in 3-D letters. But his no-boundaries visual creativity has produced much wider-ranging output, including some whose cultural impact stretches far beyond the galleries that represent him.

Bookended by rollicking, Tennessee-accented slide presentations in which the Southern boy recounts adventures in NYC- and LA-based art scenes, the film details a background and family life whose emotional normalcy is refreshing: Loving parents express pride in White’s weirdo success; his wife and two kids, all artists themselves, form a happily creative household.

The painter’s early work led him to the television version of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” where he designed sets and puppets and even voiced a few characters. Using interviews with the show’s crew and behind-the-scenes home video, Berkeley captures the happy anarchy of that series’s no-budget first season.

As he summarizes White’s post-Pee-wee show-biz career, where highlights included a Méliès-inspired Smashing Pumpkins video and low points were plentiful, Berkeley finds an artist burning up gears, trying to be a one-man moving picture factory while pleasing corporate employers.

Just as viewers feel they’re watching a downward-spiral doc about a failed visionary, though, Berkeley cuts back to the slideshows, where admiring crowds listen to the latest chapters in White’s biography. He also recruits college collaborators to elaborate on White’s puppetry and art-world professionals who contextualize his jump from backstage chaos to white-wall success.

In between it all, we watch White cavort in a yard-tall cardboard mask of President Lyndon B. Johnson. His facility with physical performance and costuming, examplified in the LBJ antics, suggests the painter and puppeteer might have had yet another career, if only days had a few more hours in them.

Then again, who’s to say White won’t segue from slideshows about painting to one-man gigs that ignore the artworks entirely, introducing his spiky humor to yet another audience that knows nothing of what came before?

Hollywood Reporter

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