Brian Dettmer Gets To The Heart Of The Book—Much Deeper Than Simply Reading It

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I never have a picture of what it’s going to look like when I’m done.

Brian Dettmer is a surgical sculptor, an archeologist for the obsolete, a dissector of the disused and an excavator of objects near extinction. The Atlanta, Georgia-based artist has made a mark through his alteration of items that contain information or communication, transforming them so they convey their message in a new and distinct fashion.

The objects Dettmer has gravitated to thus far have been cassette tapes, videotapes, maps and, most notably, books. Choosing items that aren’t obsolete quite yet—but whose function has decreased and taken a backseat to newer forms of media—Dettmer’s objective is to keep the inherent qualities of the items intact, while drawing out new forms of communication through his treatment of them.

His book sculptures start with Dettmer sealing the pages and carving through the front using a variety of tools, such as Exacto knives, tweezers, surgical clamps, needle-nose pliers, straight-edges and even pieces of metal that can bend into shapes. As he cuts through one page at a time, wherever he sees something interesting he’ll work around and wherever he sees something uninteresting, he’ll cut out. He clear-coats the pages to hold them in position as he goes, with a final overall clear coat at the end. The result is a unique sculpture that highlights images and text from the book three-dimensionally, creating a feeling of delving into the heart of the book much more deeply than simply reading it.

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“A book needs to feel right, it needs to have the right size and paper type,” says Dettmer of his choices. “There needs to be enough diversity and variety. There needs to be a subject of interest with illustrations or photographs or text. I’ll flip through the pages before I seal them up and sometimes I’ll see an image and think, ‘I hope I come across that.’ But once I seal up the book, there’s a degree of randomness, a lack of control because I don’t move or add anything. I never plan what I’m going to come across. That’s one of the things that keeps it interesting to me. That in itself is like reading in a way because I don’t know what’s on the next page when I’m carving through. I never have a picture of what it’s going to look like when I’m done.”

Dettmer’s final goal is more complex than simply hoping to stumble across the most attractive images in a book and cutting around them to create an elaborate movie poster-style work. For his piece The Picture Bible, for example, he does start with a concept that includes characteristics of the book such as the sex, violence and superhero-ness portrayed in the visuals, but it goes beyond simply paying tribute.

If I’m working with a book that was full of information, the book becomes a sculpture and the information can become concrete poetry within the sculpture.

“I don’t want to subvert things too much where I put my own message into things,” Dettmer points out. “I try to reveal some of the undertones and unconscious stories books tell. If I’m working with a book that was full of information, the book becomes a sculpture and the information can become concrete poetry within the sculpture. With certain books like medical books, the text itself can become a metaphor for love and relationships rather than strictly the physical body. A lot of images and different types of field-specific language can be exposed in different ways to make it more universal.”

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The book sculptures aren’t always approached from the front. In certain pieces such as Webster’s New Inter Diction, the covers are sealed together and the pages separated in the middle. In this particular work Dettmer creates a virus-like sculpture on the side that has nothing to do with the images and the text inside, but looks like it is attacking the book. At the same time, he also has his signature sculpting in the front of the book. In his Log series, he removes the book cover entirely, rolling the pages as you would a magazine or newspaper, sealing them and carving into one side. Similar to this is his Core series, where he carves into all sides.

“I want to utilize the inherent qualities of the material,” says Dettmer of Core. “In the same way someone who is sculpting out of wood wants to use that wood grain, and the fact that it has a certain look to it, within their own work.”

This is even more apparent in Dettmer’s work with cassettes and videotapes. Although the tapes are split open, melted and altered with Dettmer’s wet hands plus pliers, and then welded to form the shapes of his pieces, they are still entirely recognizable for what they were previously. With these pieces, Dettmer has more of a set idea of what the sculptures are going to be and how they relate to the original object. His gangster series (Scarface, Goodfellas, the Godfather trilogy) all—understandably—take the shape of funeral flowers.

His series of human skulls started out with heavy metal cassettes. This has significance in a number of ways: the music is from the ’80s, that decade was the one where tapes were at their prime, the medium is dying while the music lives through time and space, the actual shell of the cassette looks like bone, this shell is the skeleton of the tape, plus the music fetishes death and skull imagery.

“I have a picture of what things are going to turn out like, but because it’s not clay or stone, I don’t have 100% control over the material—so there are some qualities of the material that are dictating the way the final piece comes out. There’s still a balance between what I’m going to do to it and what it already has in it,” says Dettmer. “Most people get pulled in by an initial connection and then they think about it. I don’t like to hit anybody over the head with a certain idea; I like to leave things open enough so it opens up somebody thinking about other things. What I try to do with all my work is have it work on many, many different levels.”

Brian Dettmer is currently showing his new series, "Paper Back," at Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago.

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In his new series Dettmer continues to question the past, present and future of the book by exploring and expanding the possibilities of the book's form and content. For his Paper Back series, horizontal rows of multiple paperback books in specific genres are compressed and sanded into solid linear forms. The investigation into language, its possibilities and limitations continue as suggestive clichés are carved into the surface of the fictitious narratives. Hundreds of words and phrases are excavated within each letter, creating links and clusters of ideas. Words are torn from their original meaning and float to latch onto new possibilities.

The closing reception is on November 20th from 2 – 5 pm and will include a performance by Coppice, the Chicago-based duet of Noé Cuéllar & Joseph Kramer. They’ll be presenting a custom-design instrument by Andrew Furse (of Tiny Music) called Apiray. The instrument couples twin-bellows into a new musical instrument; a free-reed expression box. Similar to how a music hold perforated discs containing songs, the instrument holds up to two slides containing free reeds in various tunings. The instrument is activated by manually operating the bellows. You can read Andrew’s notes about the instrument here.