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.
Brian Dettmer’s sculptures are like steampunk versions of data clouds. Treating books as if they were bodies under investigation (the word ‘autopsy’ comes up frequently in discussions of this artist’s work), Dettmer expertly fillets them, foregrounding certain pictures, words, and illustrations while excising others in order to highlight previously unnoticed relationships. The results are densely layered bibliophilic wunderkammer that are truly incredible to behold.
Dettmer’s cuts are surgically precise, but they’re also curatorial in nature. By transforming books into objects of pure contemplation and display, Dettmer destroys their ability to be useful in the manner they once were. At the same time, he invests them with new signifying potential. In this case, bodies of knowledge are made to display their own viscera in a simultaneous rather than sequential manner; it’s not exactly like how we experience the Internet, but it certainly evokes it.
Dettmer’s books can be surprisingly provocative, too, stirring up all kinds of nostalgia, reverence, and even guilt about the fate of printed matter in the age of the iPhone, the Kindle, and the Vook. In the catalogue essay, portions of which have been excerpted in the gallery’s press release, Antonia Pocock argues that Dettmer’s book carvings “represent an impulse to resuscitate the tangible records of information that appear dead when faced with the dynamic, instantly adaptable media of the information era. Under Dettmer’s hand, the rigid rectangle of the book dissolves into a chaos of new data connections.”
Dettmer focus isn’t solely on text, however. It’s equally enamored of illustration, which in Dettmer’s preferred choice of books–mostly of the encyclopedic or instructional kind–take the form of intricate woodcuts, line drawings, and schematics along with various forms of cartography. The Web is filled with images, but it’s not an illustrator’s medium. The three dimensionality of Dettmer’s sculpturalized books reminds us of how the internet and the computer screen tend to flatten images, obliterating shadow and fine detail and making hand-drawn efforts largely irrelevant.
The exhibition also includes a two-channel video downstairs which provides insight into Dettmer’s painstaking working process. Thankfully, the videos leave a lot of the how-to’s unanswered, which keeps the mystery of it all alive. I didn’t want Dettmer’s process to be totally transparent –where’s the fun in that? Instead, they remain, for me at least, Carrollian follies so strange and alluring I wanted to shrink myself down, crawl inside them, and explore.
Brian Dettmer’s “Adaptations” will be on view at Packer Schopf Gallery through May 9th.