Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tim Burton at LACMA

Hollywood comes to an Art Museum

Most major US art museums now try to book a blockbuster show once or twice a year, something with a themed subject that requires a special ticket and a long entrance line. They increase membership that way, gain branding identity, and (they all hope) make a killing in related merchandizing.

Safe-bet topics for a blockbuster show are Vincent van Gogh, King Tut, or anything having to do with mainstream French Impressionism. Once in a while you can risk a slight deviation, such as the Tate’s interesting and provocative show on Victorian Nudes, or LACMA’s amazing retrospective about the photographer Diane Arbus. In general though, stay safe. When Impressionism museums like the Orsay in Paris go through a partial shut down in order to remodel, they can farm out their premier collections in a series of traveling shows that delight museum directors around the world. They get a hefty rental fee and the hosting US museums get a summer blockbuster that draws in a million people.

Alas, the Orsay now is finished and in Cairo they’re burning mummies for firewood, so what’s a museum to do? Easy. Turn to something even more popular than art: the movies.

So this summer the “Big Show” at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is not about a painter, not about a pharaoh, but features somebody with even more cultural capital than Napoleon himself: director Tim Burton.

To be sure, this is a popular show. I picked what I hoped would be a slack time (4 pm on a Friday) and it was still jam-packed. For company I had AVC writer and adjunct teacher Nicelle Davis, AVC artist and teacher Christine Mugnolo, and CSU student Abbey Fitting. We all admire his movies to a greater or lesser extent (the earlier ones like Edward Scissorhands more so than the mis-edited and self-indulgent Alice in Wonderland), but we all agreed that the show felt too much like pandering. LACMA can’t really be taking all of these plastic models and costume sketches seriously, can they? They just are trying to draw in big crowds. (And it seems to be working.)

If you have an interest in his working process, you can get a brief taste of that here, since there are sketchbooks and early home movies. And if you just want to see all things Burtonesque, there are enough corpse brides and carnivalesque fat men to delight you for hours. But is it art? That seems not even to be part of the discussion, though I wish that it were. What is the relationship between an idea and its execution? Some of the objects on display (a costume, say) Mr. Burton certainly did not make. True, great painters of the past had their own workshop assistants, and even Ansel Adams, at career’s end, did not do his own darkroom work. But let’s let that be part of the discussion, then: who gets the credit for making the art if it’s one person’s idea and another person’s labor?

This model looks like a Tim Burton kind of thing, yet somebody else made it. Who’s the artist here?

Critics have savaged this show by the way. From a website run by LA Weekly, let me summarize things said in the LA Times. This is from earlier this summer.

A jet-lagged Tim Burton hit Los Angeles this weekend and Los Angeles hit back — well, more precisely, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times hit back with a brutal review of the huge new exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that is titled, simply,”Tim Burton.” Critic Christopher Knight essentially gave the exhibit a review so harsh that it might even have made the ever-optimistic Ed Wood cringe.

Knight wrote: “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.” The critic also weighed in on the exhibit’s propensity for props: “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.”

Meanwhile, across the entrance hall from the Burton show is a second show in the same building: Gifts of the Sultan—the Art of Giving at the Islamic Courts.

On the day I visited, it had 5% of the attendance of the Burton show, yet was actually more marvelous—marvelous in the original meaning of producing wonder and awe. One could marvel at the jeweled swords or the gorgeous gilded holy texts, or be surprised by the saturated color of this horse and groom:

This book page dates from 1530 and uses colors similar to this illustration by Tim Burton, featured on the back cover of the exhibition catalogue:

Of the two, I like the horse better: it has a powerful grace and dignity, and yet still packs a wallup graphically. Burton like many cartoonists prone to exaggeration and a quick sugar rush, but once that fades, there’s not much content here: I don’t really understand much about hidden desires or the sources of nightmares or even the role of women in the 21st century. I like the use of color and design, certainly, but it’s not very profound.

Maybe it doesn’t need to be. Like a lot of kids in my generation, I grew up with Twinkies and Ding-Dongs. There were no hand-crafted organic brownies in my Fess Parker lunch box. (If I am fat now it’s my own fault, not Hostess’s.) Is it okay to like the quick and the easy, things like Tim Burton, who is certainly the Twinkie of visual culture? One of the great things about a Ding-Dong in my lunch was that I could wad the aluminum foil wrapper up into a ball and throw it at girls. Try that with Tim Burton’s blue zombie woman and she’s likely to zap you back with her death-ray bosom.

In the end, what is most surprising and most strange is not in the Burton show, but across the hall in the Sultan’s show.

I will end with a not-so-rhetorical question. Look at the final two images in this blog post. Which of these two images is, ultimately, more strange, more threatening? The painting of a man who could have you put to death . . . or the Disney-friendly Skeleton Jack? If you’re unsure, go see both shows and decide for yourself.

1 comment:

  1. That's so great. I'm a fan of Tim Burton's work. It's really good especially the "Corpse Bride" and "Alice in Wonderland". Both really good films.

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