Three years ago, the world renowned, pop-culture focused Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles hosted a solo exhibit by North Carolina artist, Bruce White, titled Velvetmania. A tattoo artist by trade with a BFA in Printmaking from the University of North Carolina, Bruce first entered our radar due to his uncanny ability to recreate extraordinary portraits by utilizing the shamefully underappreciated medium of the black velvet painting. White‘s work has appeared in numerous highly respected galleries, consistently as standout pieces in various themed group shows, and in recent years, it has even popped up in such motion pictures as the Key and Peele film, Keanu, and The House, starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler. If you were to visit his website, VelvetGeek.com, you would be greeted with an ever-growing selection of velvet portraits depicting some of the most enduring figures from popular cinema and television, from Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski and Jareth The Goblin King to Walter White and Agent Dale Cooper. You’ll also discover remarkable renderings of such celebrities as Prince; characters from cult classics likeThe Burbs‘ Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks); old-school horror movie monsters; references as obscure as the 1994 Sega Genesis videogame, Shaq Fu; and any number of possibilities in between. But, if the artist has one specialty in particular, it’s definitely science-fiction — he’s as full blown of a Star Wars fan as you’re likely to come across. And that’s one of the things that made Velvetmania so fascinating, the fact that, with such a plethora of references and aspects in popular culture to draw from, Bruce opted to craft dozens of portraits related to the one topic that he had absolutely no experience or history with: professional wrestling.
Prior to working on Velvetmania, Bruce White did paint Andre The Giant, but strictly as the character Fezzik that the wrestling legend portrayed in The Princess Bride. In 2012, he also created a velvet of “Macho King” Randy Savage, but only as a nod to the wrestler’s appearance in the NES game WWF Wrestlemania Challenge for G1988‘s “Old School Video Game Show- Level 2,” and even then, the selection was prompted by gallery founder, Jensen Karp. A longtime pro-wrestling fan, Karp has not only hosted podcasts related to the subject — one example being Afterbuzz TV‘s post show recap covering WWE’s Monday Night Raw — but even had a 7-month stint writing for World Wrestling Entertainment in 2006. It was Jensen that managed to convince Bruce to dedicate himself to the subject, pumping out one impressive portrait of a larger-than-life figure from his youth after another.
We spoke to Jensen around the time of the 2014 exhibit, and he elaborated on how the entire thing originally unfolded.
“Bruce has ZERO knowledge of wrestling. NOTHING. Which made it even more fun. I first convinced him to do the Macho King for a video game show. Then we made a deal, if it sold within 10 minutes, then he had to do a full show of my favorites, and here we are. He had to learn about each one through YouTube to even get their essence, which made it even cooler. I sent him about my favorite 50, and he picked 40 after research“
In fact, in preparation for the opening of Velvetmania, I conducted a full interview with Karp, which was included in a detailed preview that can be found HERE. Out of the questions that I sent to him, half of them were initially intended for both Bruce and himself to answer, with an equal number of questions dedicated to each of them individually. However, due to White‘s busy schedule surrounding the show and the fact that he was en route to appear at it, it never quite worked out that way and we chose to focus exclusively on Jensen and his role and insight regarding the project. During the interview, the gallery owner casually mentioned the potential for a sequel in the distant future, if the original exhibit proved successful. Last week, on Thursday, July 13th, that prediction manifested into reality, when Velvetmania II opened at G1988, hosted by none other than actor/former WCW World Heavyweight Champion, David Arquette.
A tremendous followup, the collection of work showcased was just as impressive as that of the original. The main difference from the previous show and this one is that, while the first Velvetmania was comprised of portraits highlighting flamboyant stars of the squared circle from when I was growing up in the 1980s, the latest installment is dedicated more to wrestlers from the 1990s “attitude era.” What hasn’t changed is Bruce White‘s meticulous style and ability to capture the essence of each one of the wrestlers that he takes on perfectly. To reiterate my comments from our coverage on the previous show, “From the work alone, you’d never know that [White] didn’t grow up watching Summer Slam or pretending to cut the hair of neighborhood kids with comically over-sized shears after sedating them with a sleeper hold. These paintings look pretty fucking amazing.”
Once I discovered that Velvetmania II was on the horizon, I recognized that it could be the perfect opportunity to dust off those old questions, update them a bit, and reach out to Bruce, who graciously agreed to answer them now. Please check out that interview below, followed by images of the available works from the exhibit.
One of the most unique aspects about velvet paintings is how the canvas has the ability to play such a key role in the final result, rather than simply being a surface to block out, coat, and/or paint over. With you being a tattoo artist, I would imagine that there might be some similarities between the two disciplines, as far as requiring an awareness of negative space, highlights/shading, and giving respect to the canvas and how/where it intersects with the overall image. Has there been anything that you’ve learned with your velvets that you’ve been able to apply directly to your tattooing work, or vice versa? Is there actually that much of a relation between the two, and what are the major differences?
There really isn’t much correlation between the two, other than being very underrated art forms. LOL!
Seriously… I enjoy doing realistic tattoos, and I think painting portraits has changed the way I literally “see” things, in that I think my sense of observation has changed. I think I’m slowly evolving, figuring out how to better visually represent things on a technical level. It’s an interesting journey, personally. I can look back at some early paintings and see how I’ve changed the way I work. I think my painting has helped my tattooing in that way.
Is there ever a feeling of godliness that you get (or consumes you), when you’re, essentially, painting with light and pulling figures out of the shadows, summoning them from an abyss of darkness, like you do?
LOL! Oh wow. Well, I don’t feel like a god. More like a lowly servant of one, I guess. Seriously, I really love the process of painting, which can be both exhilarating one second and frustrating in the next.
Historically, a lot of velvet paintings were pushed out of warehouses and created in an assembly line fashion with each painter/worker focusing on the one specific element that they were the most skilled at –- waterfalls, sunsets, shrubbery, etc. When you first started with this medium, what was the trickiest aspect to really get down for you, in general, if any?
You can’t shove a bunch of paint into the velvet and pretend you are done. Working on velvet is a layering process, so it’s really learning to slow down, and breathe. You literally have to step away to let it dry and then you can come back to it with “fresh” eyes. It takes patience and time.
There’s a museum of velvet paintings called the Velveteria that, around the time of the last show, had recently relocated from Portland to the Los Angeles area. Have you ever had an opportunity to check that place out?
I haven’t. I really should make the time. I’m not a fan of driving in unfamiliar places. I like to walk, so when I’m in LA, I try to stay close to Gallery1988. I really like that neighborhood.
I’ve read that you often watch films when you’re painting your pieces. How much classic wrestling footage have you youtubed during the production of the Velvetmania shows?
The films I usually have on in the background when I’m working are things I’ve seen before, so I know I’m not missing anything. Wrestling is much more of a visual medium, it’s difficult for me to just listen and have an idea of what’s happening. You have to be engaged to appreciate what is going on. In the past few years, I’ve started listening to podcasts when I’m painting. Mostly pop culture related. Comedy shows, movie reviews, “bad movie” shows, things like that. There are also some great art podcasts with artist interviews, like “Your Creative Push” and “Pencil Kings“, which can be inspiring.
It’s my understanding that, although you managed to capture the tone and likenesses of the figures so spot on, you really didn’t have any history with professional wrestling prior to embarking on that first Velvetmania exhibit. What’s one thing that stood out to you the most about the culture or the industry when you began conducting your research?
I found it interesting that the costumes (for the most part) became more “toned down” in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I loved the bright colors and over the top “comic book” costumes of the 1980’s era wrestlers. I mean, I really LOVED painting Koko B Ware for the last show. His glasses, the feathers, the colors, and a parrot! Just a colorful, amazing look. Goldust was fun too, with all those feathers. This time, the costumes were still there, but more muted. The “attitude” era, seemed to embrace a more hard-edged sort of “biker gang” look: more tattoos, chains, leather, black shirts. It’s an interesting aesthetic.
For the first Velvetmania, Jensen presented you with a large pool of figures from the pro wrestling world for you to edit down and select from. Was the process different this time around? Was there any one figure in particular that you felt was missing from the first show that you were the most excited about tackling this time around?
Yeah, I had a list to pick from, and went from there.
You generally seem to avoid the more cliche subject matter associated with velvet art of the past. Was your portrait of Honky Tonk Man the first time you’d ever attempted any version of an “Elvis” on velvet before?
This is true. I still have not painted Elvis. I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but no one has asked.
Beyond being, quite possibly, the all-time biggest fan of Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia, you’ve often expressed tremendous reverence for other powerful film heroines like Ellen Ripley. One of the first preview images that we saw for this show was even your painting of Chyna. As someone who used to stay up late to watch GLOW, back in the day, I was wondering how familiar you are with the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling and if you’ve had a chance to watch the documentary or any of the new Netflix program based around them.
Without fetishizing them, I have an admiration for strong female characters who don’t fit a “stereotypical” role. In pop culture there is a direct lineage from the character of Princess Leia in 1977, to Ripley in 1979 to Sarah Conner in 1984, on to Buffy, Xena, etc. Chyna slots perfectly into that lineage. I was happy to include her. I’m so behind on my tv shows, I still have to watch the new GLOW series.
Speaking of both Elvis and women’s wrestling, did Andy Kaufman ever make it to the short list of potential subjects?
No, he never came up.
Many years ago, I was at a bar where I was being coaxed into a pact where we would all have to agree to get a tattoo of a classic wrestling figure. One of the people pushing the idea already had a tattoo of Frazier and another one of a cooked chicken in a foot race with a bottle of Zima, so things were looking serious. I think that I tentatively agreed to Koko B. Ware, but it never actually went down. If you were in a similar position and had to pick one wrestler to get tattooed onto your body, who would it be and who would you have do it for you?
No question. Andre the Giant. I mean “The Princess Bride”? Come on! “Anybody want a peanut?”
I’d probably have one of the guys I work with do it, either Jonas Britt or Danny MacNeal.
Not wrestling related, but do you have any interesting stories about “over the top” painting commissions or tattoo requests that you’ve felt a responsibility to turn down for one reason or another?
I usually turn down commissions because of technical reasons. Velvet is not the best for rendering tiny, tiny details, so someone will ask for painting of a huge action scene, with a ton of elements and several people in the frame, and it just won’t work, the faces would be too small. I’ve gotten a couple of requests for very sexual scenes that I was not comfortable doing.
Now that you’re more of an expert than you were 3 years ago, based just on what you’ve witnessed, who do you feel might be/have been the most overrated wrestler, and who’s the most underrated?
Oh man, I really don’t want to disparage anyone.
If you could see anyone square off in the squared circle against each other, who would it be? (This could be a head to head match, tag team, or even a Royal Rumble, and they don’t even have to be wrestlers – Muhammad Ali did fight Superman in a comic book back in 1978.)
Andre the Giant vs. The Rock. Epic.
Face or Heel?
Greatest finishing move?
What sort of character theme do you think you’d have yourself, if you entered the industry?
I have a huge tribal tattoo on my back, like giant stripes. Maybe I could body paint the rest of me like that. Don’t know what I would be called. “The Zebra”? “Tiger Man”? LOL!
What would your entrance theme be?
“Sweet Dreams“, by Eurythmics.
For inquires regarding Bruce White’s artwork, please email email@example.com