An artist bought cheap paperbacks for 10 or 25 cents at used bookstores. In little time, the collection grew to 100â€™s. He organized them by genreâ€”suspense, mystery, and murderâ€”and within each genre, he chose a select few, organizing them again, alphabetically by title. He ripped the covers off, stacked them, sealed them together with adhesive, and wielded a knife.
Afterwards he told me he didnâ€™t want to make too many aesthetic decisions based on tone or color of pages. He said he didnâ€™t want to work with high-art, literary-type books. He offered other explanations when I questioned him over Skype, after having met him at the opening of his show at the Packer Schopf Gallery on November 4. He didnâ€™t seem shifty, but then again his show â€œPaper Backâ€ is up there for only two weeks (before it travels to the Pulse Fair in Miami!).
The artist: Brian Dettmer: â€œThis is the first time Iâ€™ve focused on paperbacks in such large pieces.â€
Seeâ€”he admitted itâ€™s unusual. Brian Dettmer’s best known for slicing through vintage reference books, cutting around preexisting images and text, thereby creating intricate layered book-sculptures. But for the paperback book-sculptures in the new show, he’s complicated his readings with the knife, cutting out the letters of phrases. He revealed:
BD: â€œItâ€™s tough working with language in visual art, I think, giving so much focus to such a short phrase. People are going to read into it, no matter what, so I didnâ€™t want them to be too literary or sound too sure of themselves. I didnâ€™t want them to come across as preachy. . . . And I definitely wanted to avoid them sounding too pretentious by being too intelligent or too deep. So the first one I come up with was â€˜I Could Tell You But Then Iâ€™d Have To Kill You,â€™ and then I was thinking about the subjects as well, the suspense, the mystery, and the murder, and I was thinking about this situation weâ€™re in with books right now. We donâ€™t really know what the future is with them. And I wanted to use phrases that everyone knows, and I like this idea of cutting them off at the end. . . . It makes it darker, more open to interpretation. Even though everyone already knows exactly how it finishes, youâ€™re finishing it in your head. Then the middle one â€˜Thereâ€™s Nothing To Fear Butâ€™ that, without the words â€˜fear itself,â€™ seems even more troubling. But thatâ€™s like whatâ€™s going to happen to information if we do stop printing books. Weâ€™re constantly losing files and constantly having to upgrade. . . . Maybe Iâ€™m a bit of a doom-and-gloomer, but if we lose access to inexpensive electricity and information keeps going the way it does, weâ€™re going to lose access to all of our personal and cultural records as well. Weâ€™re continuing to rely on constant electricity. Also thinking about how technology and information are so integrated and how vulnerable thatâ€™s becoming, but those are my own thoughts. They are such open phrases. Theyâ€™re kind of cheesy, kind of funny also, but by putting them on there, people can stop there; they can read into it and put their own interpretation onto it.”
Okay, I agreeâ€”definitely humorous and dark. He continued:
BD: “When youâ€™re on the right side [of each paperback sculpture], you can read the text, but when youâ€™re on the left side, the letters become more visible, but then itâ€™s also controlled the way the actual words are held together.”
Interesting. . . . But what about the notches in the sculptures?
BD: â€œI wanted something to tie the text in with the actual sculpture that would integrate the two, and I was also thinking about this idea that the text emerged from pixels but not literally carving a shape of a pixel. Just letting the text, the architecture of the book, the structure of the page dictate where these little things might go.â€
I asked him to explain something else I found a little odd for him but definitely compellingâ€”the ink-jet prints of visual poems on the walls near their corresponding sculptures. For example, pictured here â€œProse and Poetry of the Worldâ€:
BD: â€œIâ€™ve always found when Iâ€™m isolating specific lines of text, whether it be from an anatomy book or a mechanical book or even a poetry book because all these fields are so specificâ€”once Iâ€™m isolating that textâ€”it takes on a different meaning, the possibilities open up, and so it is a visual poetry. So for this new show, Iâ€™ve been focusing more on text, shifting toward that more. With some of the individual pieces, I then began transcribing the actual text into a printed pageâ€”highlighting that visual poetryâ€”and hopefully shifting the viewerâ€™s focus to that, at least whatâ€™s on the printed page, and then going back and forth between that and the sculpture.â€
We talked about other shifts, more about his works using nonfiction:
BD: â€œThe information [in nonfiction books] is changing over time but, as we all know, the form has changed as well. I think itâ€™s dictionaries and encyclopedias, all of these reference books, that are losing their function the quickest because everything is online. I have 10 or 20 solid dictionaries in my studio right now, but if I need to look up a word, Iâ€™ll go online because I can get directly to it. Same with encyclopedias. Because the information is constantly evolving, but the form itself is evolving as wellâ€”encyclopedias and dictionariesâ€”these text reference books are the first to go as far as the way books are going. Itâ€™s interesting because the content and also the form is constantly evolving and under threat.â€
I asked but shouldn’tâ€”What next, Brian Dettmer? Youâ€™ve really outdone yourself here. What next?
Brian Dettmer may or may not be at the closing receptionâ€”he didn’t know yet at the time of our talking. But the closing reception at Packer Schopf Gallery on November 20 will feature a performance by Coppice, a Chicago-based duet of bellows and electronics. The performance begins at 3:00 p.m.â€”sharp.