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.)