By Bruce Adams

“Open wide”
The words conjure up at least a modicum of apprehension for anyone who has ever squirmed in a dental chair, hands clamped to the armrests, anticipating the worst.

Film director John Schlesinger demonstrated just how primal our cultural fear of dentistry is in one of the most agonizingly memorable scenes in movie history. In Marathon Man, Sir Laurence Olivier, armed with only a dental drill, sadistically tortures Dustin Hoffman, as the audience winces in sympathetic pain. Clearly, despite today’s relatively painless procedures, a simple dental equation is fixed in our collective psyche: “open wide” = hurt.

Honoré-Victorin Daumier's Elle tenait ferme!
(She is holding tight!), 1839.
It’s somewhat ironic then that Open Wide is also the title of an exhibition of prints and other artwork now on view at the UB Anderson Gallery, which examines 500 years of dentistry-related art. Thanks to the distance provided by time and aesthetic reinterpretation, the act of viewing these works is not only painless, it’s enjoyable.

Under the supervision of director Sandra Olsen, University at Buffalo Museum Studies Seminar students selected seventy-seven works from the extensive collection of dentist, art collector, and UB alumnus Morton G. Rivo, D.D.S.

Part art show, part historical survey, the works depict a myriad of dental practices and social attitudes, often exceptionally executed in intaglio, woodcut, lithography, and monoprint. The vast majority of the work deals with the human condition, and that condition apparently involves a whole lot of dental problems.

One point abundantly illustrated is that our fear of dentistry is not new; it’s rooted in historical reality. Dozens of predominantly European seventeenth and eighteenth century works broadly lampoon the practice of dentistry in pieces ranging from blunt genre scenes to cartoonlike caricatures. (Illustration is usually the primary artistic objective.) The images are populated by enough charlatans, thieves, itinerant hucksters, and brutal barber-dentists to populate the collected works of Charles Dickens.

A seventeenth century etching by Jan Joris van Vlet titled Der Zahanzieher (The Tooth Puller) portrays the title character bearing down on the head of a struggling patient. A shadowy assistant provides added indignity by rifling through his purse. Van Vliet employs deep chiaroscuro and dynamic composition to rival Rembrandt, albeit in the service of rather lightweight subject matter.

As the work advances toward the twentieth century, and dentistry grows in respectability, artists largely abandon social parody for a psychological introspection. A stunning example of this is Clayton Pond’s lithograph, Nude in the Dentist Chair. Rendered in a bold linear style, a starkly naked female awkwardly reclines on a dental chair, a look of anxiousness on her face. It perfectly captures the feeling of vulnerability often experienced in the dentist office.

Not all of the work is directly associated with dentistry. Many only vaguely relate to the mouth or teeth. An etching by eighteenth century Spanish artist Francisco Goya, A caza de dientes (Out Hunting for Teath), depicts a young woman pulling teeth from a hanged man to use in a love potion. In characteristic fashion, Goya creates a dark and ominous mood as the woman—repulsed by her own actions—shields her face.

In 1973 another Spaniard, Salvador Dali, added an element of surrealistic eroticism to Goya’s grim scene. Dali alters the image so that the woman now shields her face from the dead man’s ejaculate—offhandedly sketched onto the otherwise identical copy. Dali re-titled the work, A casa de mondadientes (Out Hunting for Toothpicks). A 1999 version by Mexican-American artist Enrique Chagoya retains the original title and composition, but replaces the woman and man with Disney’s Snow White, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s toothy Rat Fink. The trio of etchings speak more to changing trends in art than in oral hygiene. Other notable inclusions are works by Francesco Clemente, and Art Hazelwood, providing some much needed contemporary edginess to the collection.

At the far end of the gallery is The Discipline’s Double Dream, a two-color lithograph created for the UB School of Dental Medicine by Western New York artist Harvey Breverman. It’s complicated and subdued, and full of symbolic references to dentistry. More interesting are Breverman’s many preparatory studies on display. Drawn from life at the university’s dental department, these carefully observed patchworks of gesture, nuance, and scientific detail are almost reverential in tone. They are the antithesis of the early satirical works, providing a fitting close to the exhibition.

Bruce Adams is an artist, art educator, and critic who has written for several local publications. Open Wide is on view at the UB Anderson Gallery through Jan. 11. Call 829-3754.


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