Tim Burton: The Outcast-Turned-Insider 

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Many of the criticisms leveled at the retrospective of films and art by director Tim Burton at MoMA (through April 26, 2010) take issue, not surprisingly, with the unwavering childishness and essentially static aesthetic of the 51-year-old's work. In part this reproach reflects our cultural expectations of what modern artists do: constantly evolve, re-evaluate and deconstruct their own practice. Holding Burton, a wildly successful mainstream filmmaker whose brand identity is his consistent Gothic, fairy tale aesthetic, to this standard seems more than a little unfair. To be sure, there's a stubborn infantilism and sexless sensuality in his work that can be very frustrating, but that has been the case since 1992, when he released his sexiest, darkest work, Batman Returns. To complain about it now is to miss the point: what makes Burton's art in any medium so compelling is how he manages to convey experiences of exclusion and difference. That he continues to do so with Hollywood studios' blessings and $100 million budgets is all the more impressive. The most enlightening theme in the MoMA exhibition—and it's in everything from the layout and installation to the childhood videos, innumerable drawings, early-career Disney projects and recent films—is Burton's ability to articulate an outsider's perspective even while he's becoming an insider.

This give-and-take between interiority and exteriority, belonging and placeless-ness, structures the exhibition from the start. We enter through a doorway that's been outfitted with a grotesque monster's gaping maw, proceed down a vertiginous black and white-striped tunnel with blood-red carpeting underfoot and monitors playing Burton's 2000 web series Stainboy, and end up in a black light-lit room filled with glowing neon sculptures and paintings. Already, this feels less like a conventional museum exhibition and more like the kind of disorienting architecture so many of Burton's characters inhabit. We're no longer cultural consumers looking at a misfit's oddball art: we're suddenly the outsiders, walking tentatively through an unfamiliar landscape.

Through another doorway and into the gallery that houses the bulk of the exhibition, though, is a very familiar, conventional, and slightly cramped space—I wonder why they didn't install the Burton show in one of the roomier sixth floor galleries. The exhibition text by co-curator Ron Magliozi (along with Jenny He) explains Burton's oeuvre, from high school drawings and home films to his latest blockbusters, as a reaction to his up-bringing in suburban Burbank, California. This approach—call it the "Burbank Thesis"—is very popular among those who've looked into Burton's work in any detail, and holds that his style and subjects were developed as a reaction against and a way of coping with the frightening conformity of the place where he grew up. On this reading, Edward Scissorhands is Burton's autobiography, with the gentle, blade-fisted, punk-garbed Johnny Depp re-enacting his experience of childhood non-conformity.

It's always seemed very reductive and a little romantic to frame Burton's entire body of work, including the hundreds of drawings and paintings from his private collection that are the focus of this exhibition, as a misfit's revenge on his suburban upbringing. This show recounts how a uniquely creative and talented outcast eventually came to be championed (and employed) by those who he felt had excluded him—so, a misfit's assimilation? (To say that Burton's sentiment of exclusion has been co-opted and exploited would be an exaggeration, but a tiny screen in the gallery playing various commercials and music videos that he's directed raises that idea.)

click to enlarge Tim Burton at MoMA

Nowhere is the tentative balance between relishing the adversity of being an outcast, and using that as a way in, more apparent than in a series of drawings in Burton's typical Edward Gorey-meets-Dr. Seuss-and-Aubrey Beardsley style called "Dream Factory" (1981-83). These were executed while Burton worked as an illustrator at Disney in the early 80s, and portray the business of movies and entertainment as a monstrous, comic environment full of deceit, illusion and exploitation. In one ink and watercolor piece from the series, a sunglasses-wearing, cigar-smoking film executive with a head about ten times the size of the aliens from Mars Attacks! sits behind a desk signing contracts with eight tentacle-like arms. Another of the "Dream Factory" drawings shows a variety of oddly-shaped and colorful creations headed down a conveyor belt and being turned into uniform square boxes by a giant machine sporting Mickey Mouse ears. These pieces in particular push the norm-versus-weirdo opposition that's become Burton's trademark in a more interesting and politicized direction that's absent from the other works on display, save perhaps a practically Dada-esque TV adaptation of Hansel & Gretel that Burton created for Disney in 1983, which, for reasons that quickly become apparent, was only broadcast once.

Most of the drawings and paintings in the exhibition are mainly of interest for offering some insight into Burton's absurdly pro-active, monster factory-like imagination. The works in the "Creature Series" and "Trick or Treat" sets in particular offer glimpses of later movie monsters in embryonic form. Elsewhere, like in the "Romeo and Juliet" illustrations and "Cartoon Series" sketches, his clever and pun-filled sense of humor is at its best. Few pieces, if any, could be exhibited on their own merit outside the context of a Tim Burton exhibition, which, again, is basically as it should be.

What's harder to accept, though, is that the main room of the exhibition feels an awful lot like a Planet Hollywood restaurant. Memorabilia from various films—cowls from Batman, Catwoman's latex suit from Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands' costume, the Headless Horseman's cape from Sleepy Hollow—are mounted on a central platform and surrounded by models and props from other Burton movies. There's nothing to be learned from these objects; they're merely the static and, frankly, underwhelming output of Hollywood props and costume departments. However, they do highlight to what extent Burton has become an industry in his own right. Now he's the giant machine forming other creative people's output into something that fits his brand; the outcast has become the insider. What's more interesting and vital in this exhibition, meanwhile, is Burton's early work, from his childhood up to his first film. Few of the countless pieces from that period are especially noteworthy art objects—except several of his short films—but they are all part of the Tim Burton mythology, and gaining an understanding of how that was developed and constructed is very enjoyable.

(photo credit: Museum of Modern Art, Tim Burton)

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