Toothbrushes

Caryl Burtner’s toothbrush collection was officially launched in 1977 as a party, with an admission fee of one toothbrush per guest. From this festive beginning, the collection has grown (over 1000 and counting), and continues to be one of her most engaging and popular works-in-progress.

Upon seeing them, mounted in neat rows along the white walls of an art gallery, your first reaction is to laugh – at the downbeat ordinariness of this everyday household item, suddenly elevated by its change of context. And there’s something intrinsically comical about the toothbrush itself –in its vaguely anthropomorphic appearance, and it’s absurd function. It’s funny to think of these stick figures, standing in medicine cabinets, next to bathroom sinks, at their stations – humbly waiting to perform their one, highly specialized role in our daily hygienic ritual, dedicated to our service! Yet, after a few months’ use they are discarded unceremoniously, replaced with one chosen randomly, more or less, from the supermarket.

In Caryl’s collection, however, these poor creatures have a glorious afterlife; they are given numbers, their brief passages through their owners’ lives are documented, and their beauty is revealed in the dazzling variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures on display. It’s a new way of seeing things, and, like the best parties, it’s a lot of fun.