The word doodles, when used to describe the complete sketches and fully formed surrealism in the Bowers Museum's exhibit "Chuck Jones: Doodles of a Genius," is a misnomer. Done casually, while the artist sat at his desk taking business calls, the evident concentration and detail is far more interesting than anything you or I would come up with when turning a triangle and a straight line into a tree or a scribble into a puffy cloud.
Born in 1912, Jones was a voracious reader, the knowledge he gained helping him skip a few grades of elementary school. A self-portrait of himself as a little boy in knickers and knee socks, handfuls of pencils in every pocket and tucked into his waistband, gives you a good idea of the target he would become. That alienation from his less intelligent classmates progressed until he felt so estranged he dropped out of high school. Not wanting his son's talent to go to waste, Jones' father enrolled him—during the depths of the Depression—at what would eventually become Cal Arts. After graduation, the young man worked as a low-level animator for several years, was hired at Warner Bros. and became a director by age 25. During World War II, he worked with and befriended Theodor Geisel (who was already writing and publishing under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss), animating a series of army training films called SNAFU (army slang for "Situation Normal, All Fucked Up," though the filmmakers fudged the obscenity, substituting the word Fouled). Jones went on to direct more than 250 films—featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, among others. He gave us an animated Christmas-stealing Grinch, Who-hearing Horton and The Phantom Tollbooth; won four Oscars; and created an indelible legacy, working until he died in Corona Del Mar in 2002.
There's an obligatory wall displaying those old Warner Bros. favorites—a token to those who might otherwise not know who he is—but the exhibition's raison d'etre are dozens of his improvisatory drawings. They range from straight-forward cartoons—child knights in armor, a portly rabbit dressed as a policeman, a toucan standing on an egg and peering into a theater lamp—to autobiographical portraits (a balding, bearded man with more than a passing resemblance to the artist sits in his shorts, contemplating a crystal ball, as the disembodied profile of a woman watches him). Unusual for off-the-cuff drawings (in which the subconscious provocatively gives us a peek), Jones' imagery isn't overtly discomforting, unless his fascination with motorized machinery—some of it 1984-like menacing (such as the battery of angry red television sets)—is revelatory of some inner anxiety.
"Chuck Jones: Doodles of a Genius" at Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Aug. 3. $10-$15; children younger than 12, free.
The majority tends toward a kind of Dali-lite surreal, whimsical silliness, not unlike the best of his animated films. There's some lefty politics, all vague enough to be lost on those just looking for the funny: a figure ponders an unsteady, multileveled rock mountain of flags (mostly stars and stripes), while a lone figure in the background approaches with yet another; an oversized insect looks back at a tiny frog harnessed to a neon sign beaming, "Stop the Bombing"; fish jump up to swallow un-baited hooks on a patriotic weather vane hovering in the air. That dreamy quality carries over to representations of odd Victorian/swinging-'60s mash-up furniture (usually with rickety-looking training wheels attached); vintage circular typewriter erasers with brushes dusting a hillside into oblivion; anthropomorphic musical instruments; a lifeless arm poking out of a box like a magician's trick gone horribly wrong; or a figure with an upside-down pitcher for a head, holding an orange-sized egg on a stick.
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Worthy of curation all by themselves are the ephemera Jones wrote in the corners, borders and, sometimes, directly on the pictures themselves: phone numbers, addresses, names [Dr. Seuss (several times); his wife, Marian, fellow animator Tex (Avery), voice actor Mel (Blanc), French film critic Michel (Ciment)], sets of calculated numbers, children's network Nickelodeon, various itinerary notes. Then there's the more cryptic: the words "No? Universal," potential title parody of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" (a Rudyard Kipling short story Jones adapted) written out as "Rikki Tikki Tacki," even a bit of capitalized and lower-case wordplay that rapidly descends into existential angst ("I'm me. I THINK/3 I AM A PERSON/4 I AM OK/2 I . . . am ME/1 I am/YES. I AM!/am I?").
Thanks to the largesse of Jones' wife—most of the drawings are from her private collection—and the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity in Costa Mesa, many of these pieces are being displayed in public for the first time. My hope would be that Marian Jones would consider making more of them available to the public, as well as to other animators. I'm aware Jones didn't care for a lot of the cartoons he saw when he was alive, but imagining these "doodles" as a potential jumping-off point for characters and situations fleshed out by John Lasseter, John Kricfalusi, Pendleton Ward or even Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick is almost too exciting for this fanboy to contemplate. Jones died more than a decade ago, but that doesn't mean collaboration isn't still a possibility.