Tim Burton: The Outcast-Turned-Insider

12/06/2009 11:00 PM |

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)