New York

Meg Cranston

Venetia Kapernekas Gallery

Outside certain Nazi circles, physiognomy did not enjoy a kind reception in the twentieth century. And even if it were revived today, teeth would not be likely candidates for analysis: Certain physical traits, such as height, are still irremediable in the twenty-first century, but teeth are not among them. In an age of modem dentistry and fluoridated water, “good” teeth are more common than at any other point in history—although, lie almost everything else, they are also a reliable indicator of socioeconomic position. And with bonding and new whitening techniques, some teeth are even an index of wealth, like obesity in the Middle Ages or pale skin in the agricultural nineteenth century.

To walk through Meg Cranston’s latest show, “Some Popular Subjects (teeth),” however, was to enter a gray area where “bad” teeth suddenly became “good.” Rather than try to resurrect physiognomy for the old uses (say, identifying “criminal” traits), Cranston celebrates teeth for their own, inherent character, which is presumably extended to their owner. And the quirkier the teeth—crooked, chipped, buck, or brown—the better. This updated version of physiognomy was apparent in “Someone else with my teeth” (all works 2000), a series of black-and-white photographs in which the artist digitally inserted her own imperfect teeth into the mouths of celebrities, including those with notably funky sets’ of their own: John Lennon, David Bowie, and Eleanor Roosevelt. The effect was remarkable yet hard to identify at first, as with a recently shaved-off mustache. With famous faces, the lesson is clear: Bowie’s teeth are like Barbra Streisand’s nose—a signature rather than a flaw.

Naming Teeth offered an amusing alternative to giving nicknames to the fetishized parts of one’s anatomy (a practice usually reserved for breasts, toes, and penises). Cranston’s drawings of crooked and chipped teeth dubbed Lorelei, Oba, Dee, Charlene, Kurt, Kevin, and Keith culminated in the absurd and wonderful Naming Teeth (Robert Kennedy), in which a mouthful of teeth was labeled accordingly: Joseph Jr., John, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Patricia, Robert, Jean Ann (and a note: “Edward, not shown”). Two large color photos, Buck Tooth Beauty and Buck Tooth Beauty with Braces, documented the expressive teeth of a pair of young women close to the artist (an art student/professional dominatrix and Cranston’s baby-sitter), while two paintings, Red Sporty and Big Red, with sets of teeth cast in a red field, reflected more abstractly on the theme. And the diminutive wood-and-plaster sculptures He Varies His Ills to Vary His Pleasure, with its buck-toothed bunny, and the informe Decidua, with its dual reference to “deciduous” baby teeth and the uterine membrane shed at childbirth (the decidua), offered ruminations on life, loss, and teeth in the animal kingdom, where utility overrides aesthetic concerns.

Ultimately what Cranston served up was a host of teeth-related ideologies, from the pseudoscientific to the hygienic. But the message was insistently patriotic and pragmatic: Physical “imperfections” are markers of individuality, not flaws, and every good citizen should question the wisdom of “correcting” what isn’t broken in the first place.

Martha Schwendener