Four artists at Seattle's SOIL Gallery explore the world inside our mouths in "Teeth," running through Oct. 27.

Share story

Why is it that whole portions of the human experience are sometimes overlooked in art?

For instance: teeth.

These little sculptures in our mouth are both durable and perishable. They can be neatly aligned or a crooked mess. They give us pain when infected; give us bliss when we chomp into something good.

In a new show at SOIL Gallery, straightforwardly titled “Teeth,” four local artists investigate what our gnashers are all about.

Nola Avienne, in a glass cabinet of dental curiosities, delivers surreal turns on the world inside our mouths. From the glittering camp of “Bridgework for Liberace” to the mutant sprawl of “Gumscape,” Avienne has fun with her subject. In “The Ivories,” she explores — in carved Ivory soap, festooned with sequins, magnets, blood and other material — a variety of tooth-shape possibilities.

The importance of having teeth in the right place is stressed in “Bad Day”: a small clay head with resin teeth projecting from it at angles only vaguely related to its lips and mouth. Its patches of hair (iron filings) are in unexpected places, too. No wonder this creature’s day isn’t going well.

Alan Bur Johnson comes at the subject more clinically, with assemblages of tiny photographic transparencies framed in steel and glass that immediately call to mind dental X-rays. But their subject matter, on closer examination, isn’t necessarily dental. “Murmur: Palomino,” for instance, is a five-image strip of photo-negatives of a horse. “Murmur: Tanka” appears to be a 31-image study of driftwood or rock formations that, in theme-and-variation mode, take on toothlike qualities.

Christopher Buening’s “Front Tooth Fail” is a comical multimedia shrine to a tooth that was never meant to be. (It kept getting knocked out, Buening explains, during various boyhood accidents.) Buening’s nearby installation, “31 Tin Foil Teeth and One Gold One,” is clearly indicative of the tooth obsessions triggered in Buening by his inability to keep that one tooth intact in his mouth.

Jennifer Zwick’s single photographic contribution, “Bouquet with Condoleezza,” is a vision of colorful flowers obscuring every facial feature but the oddly recognizable toothy smile of the former secretary of state. It’s appealing as far as it goes, but feels as though it needs to be part of a series. What would Grace Jones’ feral smile be like when flower-obscured? Or one of the Bee Gees’?

Avienne also has some drawings in the show (“hard palate,” “little gum,” etc.) made from wax pastel and her own blood on vellum. More interesting in concept than execution, they can’t compete with her aberrant glass-cabinet wonders, which are at the heart of this unusual exhibit.

Michael Upchurch: