I left the Tim Burton exhibition at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art feeling glutted, bilious and giddy—my senses happily overloaded on too much eye popping, mind-candy. Sure am glad I wasn’t being tested afterwards, as on display (until October 1st) is a dizzying number of sketches, photos, paintings, sculptures, maquettes-that fancy word for stop animation puppets, costumes, props, animation and film footage. And NO you can’t really do it all in an hour. This retrospective could easily be split into three shows—which would give the many smaller objects lost in the shuffling line of gawkers their due. Ever get that Pettibon, feeling? So, either take a Dramamine and pace yourself or plan to go at least twice. And be sure to get your tickets now before capacity crowds kill your buzz. LACMA membership gets yah two free by the way (and a spiffy Burton edition member card), so consider supporting your local museum, and maybe they’ll serve more than mashed potatoes next Halloween.
Before you skip through the gaping Beetlejuice maw into the fun house, hold up! There is another show sharing The Resnick Pavilion; it’s a quietly radical exhibition of sculpture by David Smith that sadly, most will ignore. For the sake of art with a capital A, please view it on your way to the restroom as a post-Burton palette cleanser.
The Burton stuff is split into 3 parts: “Surviving Burbank”, “Beautifying Burbank “and “Beyond Burbank”. Though it’s easy to get off chronological track with so many SHINY things to distract you! Possibly the aggressively hawked, audio tour would help, but I refused to spring—not being a fan of voices in my head telling me what to think about art. As you wind through galleries, cut outs, portals and astounding sounds lure you inward and onward. Whimsical surprises lurk. Quirk and charm abound. Watch out for the Robot Boy statue—he nearly scared the crap out of a lady standing next to me. And try not to fret about the lint on your shirt in Oogie Boogie’s merry-go-grotto. The bigger the gallery, the noisier it gets. The midway din of excited voices, Elfman tunage, cartoon and film tracks actually compliments the visual frenzy. But be warned, prolonged exposure could incite tantrums.
Once inside, three whimsical monsters–all signature eyeballs, teeth and spindly limbs act as a reference point amongst Burton’s juvenilia. It was hard not to pet them. Although my artist companion was a bit surprised to see the inclusion of some very amateurish pieces, I was tickled by the barely recognizable portrait of Vincent Price, dorky photo of young Tim in the kid’s police band, school essay, rudimentary cartooning and art assignments (had to read those art history notes) and the super 8 footage! Can’t beat tiny plastic cave people being swept away in a backyard flash flood. As a child of the 70’s it was all so twistedly nostalgic. His prize-winning Burbank sanitation sign and smart-ass visual puns made be think of all those Mad Magazine reading lads of yesteryear. And didn’t we all do those tedious Art 1a proportion exercises? Besides, it’s good (inspiring even) to remind folks that art starts on the back of your Pee Chee folder.
Midway between CAL ARTS and early Disney gig, two leggy dilettantes blocked my view and began spouting loudly about how Burton’s all pervading sense of alienation had informed his artistic vision—nay, his GEEN-EE-USS. Hand me that ray gun: ACK! ACK! ACK! The sledgehammer to the head theme of misunderstood oddball lost in suburbia, is a bit too pat. Anyone who’s seen his films already knows this. The short, Vincent, which you can watch in the gallery (YAY!) or the wry triptych of shell shocked gothlings trapped in a So. Cal ranch house, tell the story better. Nothing scarier than waxed fruit and and large wooden utensils as decoration. I would have preferred if more emphasis was placed on his childlike joy in creating the weird and the wonderful. This is the magic that shines through all the angst and Hollywood hoopla. To me, it’s best expressed in his concept art. The glue and red glitter cape on a sketch of the Martian Leader warmed my cold cold heart and made me want to send Burton a bouquet of crayolas!
Phew! Who cares about overkill when you are surrounded by the wickedly arch and charmingly gruesome? Once out of Burbank, Burton’s style coalesces into the familiar: big heads, attenuated bodies, snapping jaws, multitudes of eyeballs, torpedo boobs, and that potent black, white and red palette of baby’s first book. Retrospectives force you to stop and appreciate how neat it is that those Seussian, MAD, Disney, Warner Bros., horror, comic, stop animation, German expressionist influences distilled by the warm California sun spawned one monster of a genre. Can you imagine popular culture without Burton’s creations?
Later, when basking in the afterglow at the museum café, I was asked which piece or prop was my favorite. Errrr, impossible to pick just one! Seeing beloved characters makes you feel like a kid in Wonka’s Factory: Vincent, Edward, Beetlejuice, Jack and Sally, Oyster Boy. Damn! how could I forget the brilliant Family Dog cartoon? Maguettes up close are always a treat: a woebegone pincushion donkey, a forest of Skellington heads, the ornate Corpse Bride figures. Too bad that skeletal reindeer wouldn’t fit in my purse. Large Marge’s eyeballs had my friend whispering, “On this very night, ten years ago, along this very stretch of road…” YES, the latter half of the exhibit is loaded with props, thankfully few from Big Fish or Alice ;). I was partial to The Penguin’s perambulator and Ed Wood’s angora sweater. The Scissorhand costume, especially the glove, was pretty damned mesmerizing. Oddly, Cat Woman’s latex looked like a re-enactors cast off, but such is movie magic. Incidentally, the dark Batman/Scissorhands gallery makes babies cry (an added bonus).
More into art than film, I was curious to see his pen and ink cartoons and caricatures. These are stylistically mature versions of those early Burbank puns where wicked cupids shoot arrows through lover’s heads and drunk couples merge into sloppy goo in three panels. Look for Ronnie Reagan and Joey Ramone amongst the freaky characters in the Boy and Girl Series. There are also a few slap dash paintings of colorful monsters and bodacious ladies which are fun to look at because they aren’t very good. It’s clear Burton’s a doodler not a paint pusher. There’s also gorgeous production art made by talented minions which, own it, most visitors will gloss past.
Burton’s more recent art didn’t do much for me, but by then I was getting woozy. All the rubber necking and mental “Squeeing” can really take it out of a girl! I gravitated toward a large ginger root cactus with eyeballs more because I recognized it was a root. A garish nailed baby doll looked like every other nailed baby doll you see in your neighborhood pop surrealism gallery. Vivid Polaroid portraits of his props and characters were a bit more interesting, but not more than their actual subjects.
The show ends with his film career and by that point we had TILT written on our eyes and desperately needed lunch. Remember what I said about pacing your visit? We decided against waiting to sit through the live action short and staggered past the the cacophonous rumba of the “farewell committee” (I’ll not spoil it for you!) into the waiting arms of the gift shop, which actually offers a nice jumble of reasonably price mementos including DVDS of his films, catalogs, collectibles and a very necessary swirly, light-up yo-yo.
If you are planning to spend the day or just crave even more Burton (and who can’t squeeze in a wafer thin mint?) check out Burton Selects: From LACMA’s Collection in the museum’s Ahmanson Building. Always nice to see what inspires he who inspires. Other Burton related events are film screenings, lectures and tomorrow night’s Teen Event: After Dark (Saturday 6/11/11) where kids can see the show, dress up and party for FREE!
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., LA, CA 90036. (323) 857-6000 (Closed Weds.) TIM BURTON is a special ticket exhibition, get details here.
Exhibition images used with permission.