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.