Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Art vs. commerce? It’s a debate some fine artists prefer to skip, instead painting backdrops or washing dishes at Millie’s while hoping for their big break in the serious art world. Wayne White has a creative drive that encompasses both sides of the discussion — and the skills to succeed in each.

White set out in 1982 from his birthplace in Chattanooga for New York City determined to become a cartoonist. He met Art Spiegelman and did strips at Raw, and then started doing illustrations for High Times, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. During his spare time he did performance art: “punk rock puppet shows — very messy, blood, vomit, that kind of thing,” he says in a deep Southern drawl. By 1986, he was in L.A. designing sets and creating puppets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse (winning three Emmys) and Beakman’s World, while collecting Billboard and MTV awards for his video production design on Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight.”

His cross-pollination approach is evident in two of his latest endeavors. In a series of paintings, he shows off a wicked sense of humor, interpolating statements about art, life and his own twisted psyche over cheap hotel landscapes found in thrift stores: His messages evoke a 3-D Hollywood Sign with the letters reflected in the streams and shadows. The paintings, currently on view at the Western Project Gallery in Culver City, were favorably reviewed in Art Forum. And then there’s those so-stupid-that-they’re-kinda-funny Snapple bottle puppet commercials you’ve been seeing way too much of — also his.

“I reserve the right to make it up as I go along.”

—John Curry

Art Heart

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

When Karen Mack was 18, she saw an installation at a neighborhood gallery — the Museum of African American Art, cozily housed in what was then the May Co. department store in Crenshaw — and her imagination of the wider world was instantly and permanently fired. “I called the president of CalArts at the time and said that I wanted to do something to help the arts,” recalls Mack with a laugh. “He actually invited me out to a grant-writing workshop. I had no idea what it was all about. There I was, this little black girl amongst all these old white ladies.”

Mack went on to become an accountant and demystify big money, but she never lost her passion for the transformative power of art. Last January she finally gave shape to a lifelong dream by founding L.A. Commons, a nonprofit that sponsors public artworks. But this doesn’t just mean murals: L.A. Commons’ maiden project is an ambitious series of temporary art installations collectively called “Taking Flight: Migration Dreams,” which chronicles the experiences of immigrant populations all over Los Angeles. The first installation focusing on Latino immigration opened in July in MacArthur Park — the work was framed by trees and used birds as a central metaphor — and the second opened last week at the Koreatown Galleria.

Provocative art notwithstanding, Mack says partnering with local artists, businesses and community residents with each project is the whole point. “L.A. is very hard to bring together,” says Mack. “When people come by or drive by these installations, they should feel connected to a place.”

—Erin Aubry Kaplan

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