Paper Back

November 10, 2011 · Print This Article

An artist bought cheap paperbacks for 10 or 25 cents at used bookstores. In little time, the collection grew to 100’s. He organized them by genre—suspense, mystery, and murder—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 didn’t want to make too many aesthetic decisions based on tone or color of pages. He said he didn’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 didn’t seem shifty, but then again his show “Paper Back” is up there for only two weeks (before it travels to the Pulse Fair in Miami!).

The artist: Brian Dettmer: “This is the first time I’ve focused on paperbacks in such large pieces.”

See—he admitted it’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: “It’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 didn’t want them to be too literary or sound too sure of themselves. I didn’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 ‘I Could Tell You But Then I’d Have To Kill You,’ and then I was thinking about the subjects as well, the suspense, the mystery, and the murder, and I was thinking about this situation we’re in with books right now. We don’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, you’re finishing it in your head. Then the middle one ‘There’s Nothing To Fear But’ that, without the words ‘fear itself,’ seems even more troubling. But that’s like what’s going to happen to information if we do stop printing books. We’re constantly losing files and constantly having to upgrade. . . . Maybe I’m a bit of a doom-and-gloomer, but if we lose access to inexpensive electricity and information keeps going the way it does, we’re going to lose access to all of our personal and cultural records as well. We’re continuing to rely on constant electricity. Also thinking about how technology and information are so integrated and how vulnerable that’s becoming, but those are my own thoughts. They are such open phrases. They’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 agree—definitely humorous and dark. He continued:

BD: “When you’re on the right side [of each paperback sculpture], you can read the text, but when you’re on the left side, the letters become more visible, but then it’s also controlled the way the actual words are held together.”

Interesting. . . . But what about the notches in the sculptures?

BD: “I 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.”

I asked him to explain something else I found a little odd for him but definitely compelling—the ink-jet prints of visual poems on the walls near their corresponding sculptures. For example, pictured here “Prose and Poetry of the World”:

BD: “I’ve always found when I’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 specific—once I’m isolating that text—it takes on a different meaning, the possibilities open up, and so it is a visual poetry. So for this new show, I’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 page—highlighting that visual poetry—and hopefully shifting the viewer’s focus to that, at least what’s on the printed page, and then going back and forth between that and the sculpture.”

We talked about other shifts, more about his works using nonfiction:

BD: “The information [in nonfiction books] is changing over time but, as we all know, the form has changed as well. I think it’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, I’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 well—encyclopedias and dictionaries—these text reference books are the first to go as far as the way books are going. It’s interesting because the content and also the form is constantly evolving and under threat.”

I asked but shouldn’t—What next, Brian Dettmer? You’ve really outdone yourself here. What next?

Brian Dettmer may or may not be at the closing reception—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.—sharp.

The Search

October 6, 2011 · Print This Article


I arrived late in the evening to the opening of Jason Lazarus’s The Search at Andrew Rafacz Gallery. Left were the previous climbers’ footprints on the white-painted steps of The Search, which resembles a pyramid. Wearing a skirt and heels, I hesitated to ascend the stairs, but the footprints enticed me—and thankfully—because at the top awaits a surprise, an opening down into which a ladder leads to a space where two chairs and a table sit, illuminated by a hanging lamp. The night of the opening, two people occupied this denlike interior; one of the people seemed absorbed in drawing on the pages of, I later learned, the ledger for the signatures and comments of the pair of interlocutors. I looked on briefly, feeling voyeuristic.

The same night, outside the building, a friend introduced me to Lazarus who, upon learning I am a writer, invited me to be paired with a stranger (of a different vocation) and talk with the stranger inside The Search. (This proposition was perfect for me—I love talking to strangers.) A few days later, I received the formal invitation in my inbox to participate. Near the end of the email I read:

“I’m asking you to be onto The Search.
You are invited to be in conversation with:
Name:  Scott Hunter”

From googling “Scott Hunter,” knowing from his email address his affiliation with the University of Chicago, I learned he is Scott J. Hunter—notice the J—an Associate Professor of Psychology and Pediatrics there. After a few email exchanges with him to coordinate a date and time—Lazarus had instructed us to meet for up to an hour—and Hunter befriending me on Facebook, on September 30, around 5:00, I recognized Hunter (from Facebook), approached him on the sidewalk as he paid the parking meter fee, and introduced myself. He was impeccably dressed, his patterned shirt crisp, tucked in, and he smiled and talked easily. We chatted with each other and with the employees of the gallery before we were allowed entrance to The Search. Upon our arrival, it was still occupied with two other people, who were eventually politely told their hour was over, emerging happy, almost jubilant.

Then it was our turn. We climbed the stairs and each awkwardly brought shoe to ladder rung and lowered ourselves into The Search. (Me first, again in a skirt, probably the same skirt.) Inside, it felt cozy—the warm, inviting, natural-colored wood of the walls; the soft light; the comfortable chairs—and perhaps this setting helped for the ensuing conversation. However, during the conversation, I did notice Hunter occasionally shift in his chair, I caught myself sometimes fidgeting with my pen, but these movements seemed more natural than uneasy.

Although I’m inclined to reproduce the conversation as fully as possible, Lazarus did not intend for the dialogues in The Search to be recorded. I did not bring a recording device into the space, nor did I write much in my notebook (see the image below). The following snippets—from my faulty memory—are meant to give an idea of the conversation.

For example, as initial how-do-you-know-who’s go, I learned Hunter knows Lazarus through his art because Hunter is an art collector in addition to being a psychologist. A future purchase, he hopes, is a photograph taken by Lazarus of the ceiling from Sigmund Freud’s couch.

We talked about Hunter’s work as a child psychologist. Many of his patients are cancer survivors. Radiation, chemotherapy, and other procedures performed to rid the patients’ bodies of cancer can be detrimental to the patients’ learning and thought processes. I started to think about how visceral fear is, how frightening it would be to have cells in my own body attack other cells, how fear hampers learning. I told him the original word for bear in German has been lost because to utter it, was to call it and so a euphemism was used instead.

Our discussion turned to other animals, the animals in Chicago—squirrels, opossums, foxes, wolves—yes, wolves. Hunter and his old 40-pound dog—he didn’t tell me the dog’s breed—encountered a city wolf before, running along train tracks.

Despite seemingly wild jumps in topics, most talk revolved around memory, language, and attention. Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time was brought up often. We discussed Freud again (his psychoanalysis and idea of the uncanny). We talked about words as metaphors, active versus passive reading and writing, learning versus teaching, and attention spans and text in the digital age. Hunter remarked he felt refreshed after our conversation ended. He included as much in the ledger.

Later, upon reflection, having mentioned David Antin to Hunter, I thought more about how talking can be writing. I like how the following recording begins with Antin saying “with the search . . . ” (he’s talking about The Tempest, but listen on for a great story about a woman who lives her life poetically):  David Antin

And later still, I remembered one of the first questions I asked Hunter about his own photography—whether he preferred to work by chance or to construct a setting. My experience with The Search involved both.

The show continues through Saturday, October 15.

Heather McShane is an associate editor of Dear Navigator and a regular blogger for The Lantern Daily. She worked as an editor at World Book Encyclopedia before earning an MFA in Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.