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As his latest——and perhaps most significant——accolade attests, Tim Burton is the ultimate pariah made good. For over two decades his wildly distinctive filmic fancies have found ardent fans in all corners of the globe, frequently turning up box-office gold, initially seemingly in spite of——though now no doubt because of——their mordantly macabre idiosyncrasies.
Yet there’s no denying Hollywood’s preeminent goth/pop auteur still makes for a decidedly offbeat candidate to be honoured with an expansive retrospective at New York’s venerable Museum of Modern Art. Foremost, Burton is most notable for his work as a commercial filmmaker. And——let’s be honest——even Burton die-hards will concede his singular sensibilities seem too unabashedly, well, lowbrow for the chin-stroking art-world intelligentsia, who’ve surely grown accustomed to a dependable diet of less populist, pop-culture enthused subjects to motivate the museum’s prestigious feature exhibitions——until, that is, a cursory investigation reveals the museum’s noble history of animated art and film exhibits, including (although certainly not limited to) 2005’s Pixar: 20 Years of Animation and 1985’s That’s Not All Folks! Warner Bros. Animation.
Shrewdly timed to ride the surge of expectation for the filmmaker’s Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton has proved a phenomenal success for the MoMA, whose Special Exhibitions Gallery has been swollen with sell-out crowds since rolling out the red carpet——or more accurately, the monster tongue——in late November of last year.
And not, one can happily report, without due reason.
As a visually annotated circuit through the surprising career of the most famous of former Disney animators, Tim Burton is cloud nine for casual fans and aficionados. It’s an engrossing blockbuster exhibit that takes its curatorial cue from Andy Warhol’s assertion that “pop art is for everyone”——that is, big on show-stoppers and rarely-seen offcuts and curios, light on explicatory insight. In fact, when densely bedecked with the colourful, curlicued and candy-striped creations of his famously restless imagination, the gallery itself becomes a wonderland to rival any of Burton’s celebrated on-screen environs.
Entry is through the cavernous, carnivorous maw of a typically Burtonesque beastie. Once inside, the mood is sustained by a series of newly commissioned compositions by Burton mainstay Danny Elfman, whose carnival waltzes play on ambient loop in various sections of the exhibition space. Indeed, admirable effort has been exerted to ensure the exhibition itself is an experience of commensurate tenor to Burton’s films. In addition to the soundtrack, a number of his sketches and watercolours have been fully dimensionalised as large-scale sculptures and dioramas, which inhabit the gallery with the odd dignity of the absurd, art deco monuments that populate the Gotham City of his Batman Returns. The most arresting of these is a ceiling-suspended black-light carousel, which, when coupled with the screwy aural stylings of Elfman, becomes the kind of creepy/cute apparition it’s tempting to suspect of having tormented the infant Burton during many a nervous night.
Largely, however, Tim Burton is comprised of paintings, pen and ink illustrations, sketchbook scribblings and a vast spread of project-specific artwork. The coterie of misfits and maniacs encountered are both familiar and new, and span numerous modes and mediums, from oversized Polaroids, to caricatures (Joey Ramone and Ronald Reagan amongst them), through to the developmental art for a great many of Burton’s unrealised ventures, including animated shorts like Little Dead Riding Hood and Trick or Treat, and the ill-fated feature, Superman Lives.
What becomes quickly apparent is the sheer prolificacy Burton continues to maintain, with the preponderance of what’s on display having been exhumed from his own exhaustive private archives. By his own admission, most of these pieces were never intended for public inspection. Naturally, then, those expecting refined works of consistent quality——comparable, say, to the Henri Cartier-Bresson photographic exhibit with which Tim Burton currently shares MoMA staging honours——might leave feeling shortchanged.
What makes the Burton show so fascinating for the less exacting audience isn’t simply the smattering of ‘finished’ original pieces. It’s the occasion to trace the iconic stylistic trajectory of one of Hollywood’s most enduring, endearing and significant figures. That the young Burton was a rapacious student of monster movies and Rankin/Bass animation is by now universally known. Yet the influence ‘legitimate’ artists such as Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and Hieronymus Bosch held on the stripling cartoonist isn’t nearly so widely documented. Finding decades-old evidence of this scattered across the teeming walls of the MoMA carries the validating sense of genuine insight.
Exegetically, little attention is paid to Burton’s social context and his own considerable stamp on popular culture, and if Tim Burton is to be taken an art exhibition——as its tenure at the MoMA suggests——and not simply a memorabilia showcase, the absence is felt. The exhibition program justly credits Burton with “influencing a generation of young artists working in film, video, and graphics” today, though no evidence is offered to substantiate this. Although no doubt the upshot of considered curatorial deliberation, the oversight feels like a missed occasion to assert Burton’s standing as the unlikely yet long-shadowed pop doyen it’s now easy to forget that he is.
As stirring as it is to find oneself in the audience of the foam latex cast of The Nightmare Before Christmas, or face-to-blade with a 1:1 scale Edward Scissorhands (complete with Colleen Atwood’s original costume, as worn by Johnny Depp), there’s a niggling sense the exhibition might have put its surprisingly limited capacity to more satisfying use. That such a draw card as Burton’s bizarre 1982 chop-socky rendering of Hansel and Gretel——which, at forty-five minutes in length, aired on US television only once and has never since been available in the public domain, until now——is relegated to a tiny screen cornered away in a claustrophobic nook of the gallery is a major misgiving. Such viewing conditions are fine for more concise audio/visual content——such as the 1979 pencil animation Stalk of the Celery Monster, and the tantalising (and regrettably vetoed) animation trials from the undervalued Mars Attacks!, in which a resplendently cheesy stop-motion Martian gleefully obliterates a hapless suburbanite——but make watching anything of length in full (including the World of Stainboy Flash cartoons) a frustratingly off-putting prospect.
Furthermore, it should be noted that Burton’s more sanguineous and subversive adult-oriented fare is largely unrepresented——presumably a case of omission by design to bolster Tim Burton’s hefty potential for all-ages appeal.
Ultimately, these scruples are all but rendered moot by the compulsive creativity on show. Between the bevy of buxom blue science-fiction super-babes, the coulrophobic rogues’ gallery of slaughterous clowns, and the medley of emotionally-arrested innocents and noble tragics who pout, leer and peer from every wall, Tim Burton has something to charm the inner child of every fan of the Dream Factory, be they as easily amazed as Edward Scissorhands, or as callous as Sweeney Todd. It’s a rare opportunity to rummage through the attic of an icon——or, perhaps in this case, the dungeon.
Tim Burton is on show at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image from June 24th through October 10th, and will include materials exclusive to the exhibition’s Melbourne tenure. For more information and to book tickets, visit the exhibition’s website.
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