Art review: ‘Tim Burton’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
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It takes great editing to make a great movie. As it turns out, the same goes for a great museum exhibition that’s about the movies.
‘Tim Burton,’ the big, poorly organized traveling show from New York’s Museum of Modern Art that surveys the genesis and development of the Hollywood director’s distinctive visual style, opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It should be effervescent. Instead, the show is a monotonous plod.
Its slim catalog, at 64 pages, is far better than the super-sized exhibition -- an extravaganza three, maybe four times larger than it needs to be. Where is Edward Scissorhands when you need him?
Burton first gained broad notice in 1985 as director of ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,’ the big-screen saga of a search for a missing bicycle by Pee-wee Herman, Paul Reubens’ brilliant character. The actor’s whimsically charming madness was ideal for a director whose work is typically pitched toward a murky zone somewhere between everybody’s wide-eyed childhood and the introversion of a cult. Visually, though, the Pee-wee style -- all shiny, overstuffed capriciousness -- is more Reubens than Burton, both of them 1970s alumni of CalArts.
Burton’s own film imagery had been taking shape in earlier animated and live-action shorts with horror subjects -- ‘Vincent,’ a dark homage to his idol, Vincent Price; ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ a quirky Japanese twist on the German legend of threatened children who have lost their way; ‘Frankenweenie,’ a monster story that locates mad-scientist Victor Frankenstein in a typical American suburb, where he brings a beloved dead dog back to life. But the style didn’t fully blossom until after the commercial success of ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,’ which gave Burton the keys to the Hollywood studio-kingdom.
In rapid succession between 1988 and 1990, Burton took the helm of ‘Beetlejuice,’ ‘Batman’ and ‘Edward Scissorhands.’ Dark stories of conflict between good and evil emerging from a fever swamp of adolescent suburban conformity, the films are partly notable for their Neo-Gothic style. They announced the arrival of a kind of anti-Spielberg.
Burton dropped a variety of ingredients into the whirling blades of his visual Mixmaster. Among them are the macabre illustrations of Edward Gorey, the attenuated droopiness of cartoonist Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss); the sticky adolescent marginalia of Mad Magazine, and the wavy sketchiness of caricaturist and New Yorker cartoonist Edward Sorel. Burton’s shadowed brand of Goth, often embroidered with modern Surrealist jolts, provided an avenue to burrow into an irrational universe that preceded Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment reason -- just as it had for many 19th-century European artists.
Burton endows his brand of the Gothic with an almost Minimalist spareness -- a seemingly contradictory but effective move. The story of his Japanese ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ for example, unfolds in settings notable for their flattened, often empty geometry. The settings’ stark contrast with the highly detailed Expressionist figures heightens their sense of fantastic alienation from the world they occupy. The children are not representatives of ‘Everyman,’ but the scene of their youthful trauma occurs in an ‘Everyplace.’
At LACMA, the show opens with a talisman: An ordinary desk blotter is attached to the wall, its paper surface covered with doodles in pencil and ballpoint ink. Dated from about 1989 to 1999, it features everything from pointy abstract whorls to detailed sketches for ‘Ed Wood,’ Burton’s wonderfully nutty 1994 love-letter to the cross-dressing heterosexual master of besotted-but-awful filmmaking. (Wood famously directed 1959’s camp classic, ‘Plan 9 from Outer Space.’) The elements are nearly an inventory of Burton’s stylistic quirks, made all the more potent for their day-dreaming appearance on an old-fashioned desk blotter.
I suppose any museum exhibition with an introductory gallery headed ‘Surviving Burbank’ has something to recommend it -- Burton, 52, was born and raised in that suburban city -- but this one peters out fast. Movie buffs might be engrossed, and kids could probably have intermittent fun. But the next room is emblematic of a larger problem for art audiences.
One long wall is covered with 70 drawings -- 70! -- most of them preceding 1985’s ‘Pee-wee.’ I can’t think of a single painter or sculptor whose retrospective would benefit from such a presentation, especially dating from before the artist’s breakthrough. Knowing the evolution of an artistic vision that will soon blossom is important; but this degree of submersion, with room upon room yet to come, signals overkill.
In all, some 700 objects are on view.
Indeed, Burton’s work can’t support such close scrutiny, however much of a fan one is of certain of his movies. His originality is less intrinsic to the drawings, set designs and other models, which rely on familiar sources from Hieronymus Bosch to Gorey, than it is in their unexpected application to big-budget productions for the silver screen. A Burton extraterrestrial, unlike Spielberg’s, would be as likely to eat you -- with a benign and impetuous élan -- as it would be to climb into your bicycle-basket for a romantic moonlight ride.
Art museums often have a tough time with shows about popular culture. After all, the actual art is made to be seen in a multiplex, on TV, at the shopping mall or in a similar public or private place. (LACMA’s film department is screening a retrospective of Burton’s movies.) So the museum is limited to showing objects at least once or twice removed -- drawings and studies, say, or plans and commercial souvenirs. ‘Tim Burton,’ in addition to hundreds of sketches, has lots of movie memorabilia, much of it made by other hands according to the director’s specifications.
In an art museum, do we really need to see baby Penguin’s black-wicker pram from ‘Batman,’ Catwoman’s shredded polyurethane cat suit or the fluffy angora sweater used as a fetishistic prop in ‘Ed Wood’? Such dark or peculiar items are often outward signs of their character’s concealed inner life; but that’s catalog essay interpretation, not exhibition material.
You get the feeling they’re only here to satisfy the paying movie fans. Sometimes the display looks like the Arclight Cinema lobby on steroids. Toss in assorted puppets and a few toy-like sculptures, such as a suspended flying-saucer carousel illuminated by black-lights, and the quotient of celebrity self-indulgence climbs.
A museum visitor looking at a pop culture show always knows that, however interesting or informative a given object, the actual work of art is somewhere else. Out of sight isn’t always out of mind. It’s an oddly disconcerting relief when ‘Tim Burton’ finally ends, depositing you into the show’s truly enormous souvenir shop.
‘Tim Burton,’ LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Oct. 31. Closed Wednesdays. www.lacma.org
-- Christopher Knight
Photos: Tim Burton, ‘Edward Scissorhands,’ 1990, pen and ink; ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ 1981-84, pen and ink, colored pencil; ‘Corpse Bride,’ 2005, Polaroid; ‘Carousel,’ 209, mixed media; Credit: LACMA