New York City: Editor in chief WAFA ALOBAIDAT and myself trekked out in our reliable converse on day two (big mistake; also known as Blizzard Day) onto our first trans-Atlantic cultural escapade, 11 West & 53rd Street, where we find ourselves at The MUSEUM OF MODERN ART (MoMA).
And we definitely weren’t alone - it seemed the blizzard had swept in every Manhattanian, tourist and their moms to explore the wonders of contemporary art and one of their most popular exhibitions on at the moment: artist, illustrator, photographer, writer and perhaps more popularly known as film-maker, TIM BURTON.
Having grown up watching Edward Scissorhands carve up suburban haircuts and garden hedges with his bare (scissor) hands into eccentric concoctions (albeit it being through a certain older sister’s corrupt influence), I felt a little too giddy for words and somewhat more fearless than my six-year old self.
Jumping at the instance of getting ever so close to the third floor, the entrance did not disappoint: we were welcomed by a CV-looking chronology in Burton’s signature typography listing some of his earlier unrealized projects as well as those that do not need mention.
And in case we weren’t so sure where to enter, a black & white circular arrow pointed to a 3-D mouth cave of a monster from an unrealized project, Trick or Treat (1980) (though on first look, I would have easily mistaken it for Percy the cat, Lydia’s pet cat on Beetlejuice).
Entering ‘Percy’s’ mouth (as I shall refer to it incorrectly from now on), I walk through the first part of the exhibition, a dark corridor painted in red & white stripes with several screens showing short-film animations of Burton’s earlier work as a Disney animator in 1979. Though not in chronological flow of his first-ever sketches, these short animated movies - rough, sketchy, raw, and very much far-removed from Disney’s traditional fantasy animations at the time (think Winnie the Pooh & Aristocrats) - represent a decent introduction to his non-conventional creative approach and first official work by Burton displayed to the public.
Stepping into the main gallery room may seem a little overwhelming at first sight: the room is filled with rarely and some never-before-seen sketches upon sketches of Burton’s art work during his childhood in Burbank, California.
Burton’s first works as an illustrator date back to the late 60’s, where the beginning of his inceptions of a slightly too slim scarecrow with an over-sized bobble head –think Jack from The Nightmare Before Christmas meets the Wizard of Oz scarecrow - have the striking resemblance to some of Dr. Seuss’ work, though much darker, edgier and dare I say, trippy. But most significantly, this depicts his talent and length of (twisted, to say the least) imagination at a tender age, being raised in a small suburban town.
Untitled (The World of Stainboy). 2000.
Untitled (Ramone). 1980-1990.
As the exhibition continues down a hallway painted green and grey, a range of illustrations, animations, models, sketchbooks and figurines of various characters that were unrealized or unknown are showcased chronologically.
Three Creatures, 2009
A majority of these illustrations of monsters, freaks and slightly deformed humans (which present an elusive interpretation to the stick figure), depict the time of Burton’s teenage years in high school and college studying illustration, with a reference to his teen years being a time of loneliness and alienation - a sort of indirect analysis and assumption to his seemingly disturbing depictions and creations of characters.
Untitled (The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories). 1982–1984.
Untitled (Black Cauldron). 1983.
Despite the two-dimensional drawings of his college days lacking the basic elements of technical skill that would be later developed and seen through his animated films, it’s safe to say that I’ve entered a treasure chest of surrealist cultural artifacts of our current pop world. There is also no clear thought process or word of influence on how he came about with these creations - and on this, it seems to be a fail from the curator’s side in elaborating on where or how Burton’s influences and inspirations have come from, rather than just assuming it all be from a twisted and eccentric imagination. For those unfamiliar with Burton’s work, it does also come off as a bit over-indulgent.
Untitled (Creature Series). 1992.
Blue Girl with Wine. c. 1997.
One of Burton’s unrealized projects in particular, a fake newsletter for the dead under the name of ‘The Afterlife’, seems to confirm the entrance to a twisted mind, bringing a smirk and nod of amusement from a couple of fathers who seemed to be fine bringing along their 5-year-olds to a somewhat creepy affair.
As I make my way through the various groups of families, artsy fartsy kids and the various film buffs, I eventually hit the holy grail, a section dedicated to his time as a commercial film-maker, from the occasional beginnings of the realization of Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989) to the elaborate set drawings and notes on Edward Scissorhands (1990) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), as well as more recent flicks such as Corpse Bride (2005) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Corpse Bride (2005). Director: Tim Burton
Here we see various puppets, including a full model of Jack (The Skeleton King) and his girlfriend, and the various sketches of their faces with different stitches to show the length of effort and skill put into portraying the various characteristic facial expressions.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas storyboard. 1993.
But it’s the life scale model of Edward Scissorhands with the sharp cut-throat silver knives and scissors as hands (as if the name doesn’t give the hands enough justice) that really sets you back. Even the distressed leather on his outfit is the obvious craftsmanship of one no less than a skilled theatrical costume designer.
Untitled (Edward Scissorhands). 1990.
Overall, although the exhibit lacks the detail and depth of a full-on ‘retrospective’ of an artist’s work, given that the exhibition has been running since November 2009, this seems like a timely, not to be missed exhibit, not to mention appropriate PR buzz for celebrating all things Burton including his latest trippy endeavor, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, hitting screens 5 March 2010.
Illustration LUCIA EMANUELA CURZI
Tim Burton’s on view at the MoMA until April 26 2010.
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019
Text LUMA BASHMI
Illustrations TIM BURTON
Photography LUMA BASHMI / MICHAEL LOCASIANO