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The New

Dead Right

February 04, 1988

Southwest aficionados who can't get enough of Santa Fe cuisine, furniture and jewelry should note the new Western icon that is now roaming the range of designer living rooms: the bleached steer skull.

No longer are the brittle, sun-scorched artifacts sighted only atop fence posts on cattle ranches or sprawling in Western desert sands.

They have invaded a more urban habitat: Southwest restaurants, designer showrooms, and especially, fashion-conscious homes.

"People like them. It's definitely a big deal," said Eric Dortch, who sells up to 20 steer skulls a week at Arte de Mexico, a sprawling North Hollywood emporium. (Prices range from $125 to $185.)

Originally, Plains Indians used buffalo skulls in ceremonies that signified rebirth, healing and unity with nature. Then Western artists such as Frederick Remington and Georgia O'Keefe made the steer skull a leitmotif in their work.

The cow cranium turned commercial when Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein appropriated the artifact for sepia sportswear ads that blended Western mysticism with the rugged outdoors. From there, it was a short jump into the living room.

To some, the skulls symbolize the vanishing American West. To others, it is a welcome relief from high-tech. Indeed, one Santa Fe artist refers wryly to the skulls as "dead-tech."

"Everyone's gotten into that Southwest stuff, and bleached bones just carry that motif a little further. It's a wave . . . whose time has come," Dortch said.

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