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The Molar is the Medium


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Don Stahlke: Teeth and Fruit

at Aron Packer Gallery, through November 5

Two years ago Don Stahlke moved to Chicago from Evansville, Indiana, where he'd studied art in college, and got a job as a veterinary technician. He became interested in the dog and cat teeth he saw extracted, and some of the pet owners agreed to let him have them. At first he "really enjoyed just the shape--kind of elegant but also very raw." But soon, having already done tattoos on fruit, he got the idea of etching tiny images on these teeth.

Scrimshaw--an art once practiced by sailors who carved bones, shells, and ivory--goes back a long way, as Stahlke knows. He's also aware of other influences. "I'd read somewhere as a child that in a lot of art schools people would imitate the masters, so I tried to do that." And since much of what he found beautiful, then and now, were the illustrations in magazine advertisements, that's what he copied, producing faithful reproductions of realistic images.

The eccentric results--on view at Aron Packer are 43 etchings on teeth, 21 tattooed fruits, and 16 works on paper--are rather wonderful. Though Stahlke etched lines in and then applied acrylic paint to the teeth, he tried to respect their shapes and to include the lines in them that were the results of dentistry or gnawing. "Not hiding the fact that they're teeth," he etched on them tiny images of simple, single subjects: leaves, bugs, animals, a few humans. Honoring the origins of the teeth, he chose as subjects "things that cats or dogs get into or desire."

Stahlke's ways of acknowledging his medium could be seen as naive, but they imply a fairly radical critique of the usual painterly approach to materials. Imagine the image in a Renaissance panel painting that refers to the wood of the panel, or a modernist painting that not only acknowledges the flatness of the canvas but recognizes some aspect of its manufacture, and you start to see how Stahlke has integrated image and materials. Limiting his images to the teeth, incorporating their surface irregularities, and depicting the owners' lives, he abandons the Western artist's traditional role as creator of great icons, as inventor of new systems of seeing. Stahlke's images instead ask to be read as footnotes to the lives of animals.

And because Stahlke is after something quite different from Albrecht Durer, say, with his monumental tuft of grass and rabbit with every whisker in place, it didn't bother me that he lacks Durer's precision. Stahlke's simple, sketchy Rabbit barely fits on the tooth, yet its imprecisions make clear the tenuousness of Stahlke's whole enterprise. The rising spiral of Coiled Snake is more detailed but remains somewhat accidental: some of its lines appear to be simply paint that's collected in the tooth's indentations.

In some pieces Stahlke mounts several teeth together. Interior Scene, whose images include a roach, a spider, and a fly, offers up a kind of cat buffet. The roach in Roach is precisely delineated, but many of Stahlke's forms combine with the random tooth marks to suggest an image still struggling to be born. The elegant limitation of the small, often elegant teeth keeps his drawings attuned to their markings. I especially liked Flea on Orange Fur. The painted "fur" is an almost solid orange etched with tiny vertical lines, some of which seem to blend in with the tiny tan marks representing the flea's legs. Above this little landscape, in an unpainted area of white, smaller, less ordered lines indicate the tooth's past and suggest the artist's inspiration. Like many of Stahlke's pictures, the flea scene has a magical quality: one almost feels the tooth is enchanted.

When Stahlke inscribes images on fruit, using a tattooing machine he's owned for a decade, he's chosen as his medium another natural object--one that will soon rot. But even the intended medium of the tattooing device, human flesh, is an organic substance that will eventually decay.

Though fruit offers more surface area than a tooth, Stahlke's subjects remain endearingly simple in a series of nine reasonably fresh pomegranates: a chicken, a boy, a deer, a hand. In Hand Chair, a chain of four hands are clasped at the wrist in a most basic kind of touching. Together the nine pomegranates have the feel of a child's picture book, a beginning vocabulary of images.

Similarly basic scenes appear on the 12 "Fruits of Varying Decay," some of which are more than a year old. "After about four or five months," Stahlke says, "once the moisture's out of them, they don't change much." Boy Simultaneously Eating and Drinking shows two views of a boy's head on a lemon mounted sideways; side by side, they echo the lemon's oblong shape the way one head wouldn't. Also, the fact that the boy is eating and drinking recalls that fruit can be eaten and its juice drunk. The image in Woman Sleeping is less clearly related to lemons: we see a woman's face on a pillow, her hands on red covers--the illusionistic detail makes one wonder what this image is doing on a lemon. In this case and most others, the fruit's rough surface adds texture. Finger shows a cutoff finger in gray, as if from a classical statue; wrinkles in the lime beneath evoke the cracks in artworks ruined by time.

Time is evoked most hauntingly in Skull. Here an apple has shriveled around the image of a skull, while the portion of the apple immediately behind the image doesn't seem to have changed. The prunelike apple recalls the rotting flesh of corpses, and the intact skull the permanence of bones. While earlier artists settled for making images of nature, a growing number have responded to our civilization's alienation from the planet we're destroying by trying to include nature more profoundly in their works. By acknowledging his nature-based media and allowing them to influence his images, Stahlke gives nature a role equal to his own.

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