Photographs by Melissa Kirchhoff

“Tim Burton” at Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Photographs by Melissa Kirchhoff

“It’s definitely genius,”…”He’s a very imaginative person, simply genius.” Genius seems to be the go-to adjective in the many rooms of the Tim Burton exhibition at LACMA. Left and right, so many overheard conversations contain that one simple word that, after a while, the inclination is to roll your eyes. This reverence is a far cry from the critical review given by Christopher Knight for The LA Times calling the exhibition “poorly organized” and “overkill.” There’s no doubt that the critics’ view of ‘Tim Burton’ differs drastically from the fans’ overwhelmingly positive reaction to it, but that is to be expected when dealing with a pop culture staple as well known and loved as Tim Burton. However, with “genius” being thrown around rooms so carelessly and frequently, the question arises as to whether the title is something the exhibition has earned or whether it is a label bestowed by a public who is more than willing to give praise to a show they just paid $20 to see.

Tim Burton grew up in Burbank, California, a middle-class neighborhood he didn’t feel quite at home in. Burbank holds a significant, yet not completely defined, place in Burton’s heart, as a city which characterizes his feelings of alienation yet also became the place where he first used drawing and popular culture as a means of escape, where his incredibly distinctive aesthetic was born and where he derived most of the prevailing themes for his work. Burton has never sounded too fond of Burbank, and yet the city is mentioned alongside his name so often that, many times, to think of one is to think of the other. And true to this dynamic, ‘Tim Burton’ is split into three sections of work: “Surviving Burbank,” where the artist’s earliest adolescent work is found, “Beautifying Burbank,” work from Burton’s time spent studying at CalArts and working with the Walt Disney Company, and “Beyond Burbank,” containing work ranging from 1985 to the present.

Altogether, the exhibition boasts over 700 pieces, including paintings, drawings, costumes, photographs and many things in between; it’s these in-between things that probably earned the “overkill” title from Knight in the LA Times. “Surviving Burbank” is filled with things ranging from hand-written lists of movies Burton liked such as The Crawling Eye and Creature from the Black Lagoon, to a school paper dated 1974, to a copy of his illustrated children’s book entitled The Giant Zlig complete with the rejection letter. There’s even a pen sketch of a nude figure from CalArts and notes from an art history class. This section functions as a way to show the viewer how Burton’s style started and serves as visual proof that the artist’s distinct and wonderful aesthetic is something that he’s had since he was young. But at times one can ask “What’s the relevance? Why am I being shown this?” And granted, everything can be supported as being relevant; the hand-written list of films shows you his early film influences, the school paper shows examples of humor and satire (if you can get close enough to read it, when there are 5 other people trying to read the exact same paper), the art history notes show that he appreciates Van Gogh paintings. However this support is connected by very tenuous lines, the rationale being that these are all jigsaw pieces to the bigger puzzle that is Tim Burton and they will all work together to give the viewer a more complete understanding of the artist. While it can seem to be too much, there are some wonderful moments and things that are entirely relevant in this section, as well. The Giant Zlig is an incredibly important piece which shows Burton’s influences (the polite rejection letter stated that his illustrations were too similar to Dr. Seuss) and shows that storytelling was something he was engaged in from a young age. There are many handwritten lists and character breakdowns throughout the exhibition and while they can be difficult to read, many times there are hidden gems of Burton’s humor. A nude figure sketch from his time at CalArts isn’t so interesting in itself…however, the little naked creature posing absurdly at the bottom of the page shows the viewer the humorous and constantly in-motion mind of the artist.

“Beautifying Burbank” is comprised of paintings, a couple screens playing Burton’s earliest film Vincent and a commercial he participated in, but mostly the walls are covered by drawings. Pen drawings, drawings with watercolor; drawings dominate the majority of the space. These drawings have an attention to detail while at the same time have a loose-handed quality to them, making them energetic and interesting pieces to look at. There are many works which also showcase his unique humor, for example a drawing of a man and woman gnawing on each other’s arms is labeled “Two people enjoying each other.” It is in this area of the exhibition that the viewer starts to see certain thematic patterns in Burton’s work, as many pieces picture grotesque adults and overpowered children. His art history knowledge also becomes apparent, as one of his paintings featuring flying saucers and aliens noticeably resembles Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Most of the paintings in this section do not show an advanced technical ability to handle the medium but rather are very heavy-handed, with the paints being applied quite often with the artist’s palette knife. The paintings mainly serve to show, again, the subject matter Burton was interested in. Since Burton’s drawings were mainly done in pen, with some having watercolor added, the viewer doesn’t get a very good handle on how the artist feels about color. But his paintings show lurid and garish use of color which are echoed in his films, most notably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with the bright acid green grass and eye-popping candy colors which, against reason, only add to the darkness in the rest of the film.

‘Tim Burton’ has many collaborators whose names appear on the walls of the exhibition, but there are two who pop up over and over again: Rick Heinrichs, who made the character models that appear everywhere throughout the show and Colleen Atwood, who created the costumes that appeared in Burton’s films. There is much to see in terms of costumes and movie memorabilia, including Edward Scissorhands’ leather suit, Batman’s mask, a pumpkin-headed scarecrow from Sleepy Hollow and the Penguin’s baby carriage from Batman. In the room with Edward Scissorhands’ costume is a hand written character breakdown of our favorite blade-fingered man. There are normal descriptors here such as “soulful eyes,” however as with the nude creature posing on the bottom of Burton’s CalArts nude figure sketch, there is a hidden gem if the viewer cares to take the time to try to find it; according to Burton, Edward Scissorhands hopes to someday vacation in the Caribbean islands.


Burton dabbles in many forms of visual art, and photography is no exception. As with his paintings, there is nothing too technically advanced in his photos, though some provide an almost startling view into his mind. His first set of enlarged Polaroids were shots he had taken of his stop-motion films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and showed a directorial curiosity, seeming almost to test certain angles to see which would be the best to film. Other photos contained props such as a baby doll with nails driven through it hung on vertical red and white stripes, a blue woman holding a blue baby and a Chihuahua with antlers appearing to protrude from his head. However, the most striking photos were ones in which Burton made props and placed them in real landscapes, for example a cactus with eyes placed in a desert. What’s so fascinating about these photos is that the viewer sees a product of Burton’s imagination in a real setting and it looks absolutely out of place. Within the context of a Burton film or a landscape constructed by him, this cactus would look like it belonged, however here it just looks wrong. There’s something honest and a little sad about this photo, like Burton is trying to place something from his world into the real world to see if the two can coexist. And the disappointment when he discovers the world inside his brain is vastly different from the world we live in, the two not able to live cohesively. This photograph in particular is one that transcends the others and seems to provide, for just a moment, a window into Burton’s mind.

The last room of the Burton exhibition is full of concept art, models, drawings and puppets. However, with some of these pieces, the Corpse Bride work in particular, one fact seems to overtake the viewer’s consciousness: Burton’s name appears on less and less. Throughout the work for Corpse Bride, Burton’s name is on maybe one or two pieces. While this isn’t anything new, it’s most obvious with a beautiful piece of concept art for Corpse Bride. It’s a gorgeously drawn, very detailed landscape that absolutely oozes Burton; and when the viewer looks at the tag for this piece of art, not only is it not done by Tim Burton but no one knows who it was done by. “Unknown artist” is what the label reads, and it’s suddenly apparent that “Burtonesque,” has really come to mean that anyone can copy his style and the viewer is none the wiser. It’s a disheartening realization.

Ultimately, it’s hard to critique the exhibition because the inclination is to critique Tim Burton himself. At the same time, that’s the reason this show is able to get away with all the things that are typically discouraged. The school papers that viewers normally wouldn’t care about, the large amount of art shown that wasn’t done by the artist’s hands, the less-than-amazing paintings…it’s all glossed over because what’s really on display here isn’t Tim Burton’s work; it’s Tim Burton himself. That’s the reason people who usually don’t set foot in a museum are flocking, en masse, to this show and why there are Tim Burton advertisements on street posts up and down Wilshire.

‘Tim Burton,’ while not the walk inside Burton’s head I was expecting, did have some very sublime moments and, for better or worse, some unexpectedly emotional moments. I grew up watching and loving Tim Burton’s films and he will always have a special place in my heart. A lesson he taught me long ago and which has become a large part of my personality and aesthetic is how inextricably linked horror and humor are. And while I can’t vouch for other viewer’s experiences, I’m willing to bet that the visitors making this show a monumental success all have stories of their own about how Tim Burton’s work has touched their lives in some way. Two things remain constant over the years, no matter the direction his films have taken, and those are a strong personal aesthetic and stunning visuals. He continues to influence generations with a mind that, as shown by this exhibition, is constantly in motion and testing out new ideas, whether they’re ultimately successful or not. Tim Burton’s legacy is sure to live on for many years to come. And if, for some reason, that’s not the case, I’m not too worried about whether or not he’ll be able to support himself and his family. If there’s one thing Burton learned from the Walt Disney Company besides animation, it’s how to market himself, illustrated by the final room of the exhibition: the gift shop.


‘Tim Burton’ will be on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until October 31, 2011.

Melissa Kirchhoff