Some artists sculpt from marble or bronze. Atlanta-based artist Brian Dettmer, however, chisels his art from books.
For years, Dettmer has made fascinatingly original sculptures in which he contorts, bends, glues and manipulates old books, creating strange new forms from these familiar objects. Using the sharp cutting implements of a surgeon — Dettmer cuts into the depths of these vintage tomes, revealing themes and variations like some graduate student teasing a dissertation out of English literature. In doing so, the artist chooses to isolate key images and words amidst a fracas of information.
But the real wonder of Dettmer’s work is how multifaceted and open to various interpretations it feels. Dettmer’s solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, “Elemental” could appeal equally to book worms and to modern technophiles who haven’t touched a book in eons. Depending upon how you look at it, Dettmer’s book sculptures can feel like a prophecy of doom — the end of literacy. Or they can seem like a necessary corrective to the knowledge of the past — always changing, always updated. His work can highlight the absurdity of what we call history and knowledge as seen in the outmoded encyclopedias Dettmer often uses as his material of choice.
A gloriously complex example of Dettmer’s method occurs in “Tower 1 (Britannica)” a seven and a half foot tall column composed of a complete set of 1958 Encyclopedia Britannica standing on the gallery floor. The encyclopedias’ bindings form the interior of the tower, but it is the colorful, detailed pages that form the outside — greeting visitors with a colorful panoply of illustrations, photos and text. Slicing into those pages with a scalpel and removing bits of paper with tweezers, Dettmer creates a bas relief sculpture, raising some images and words to the surface and cutting away others. Certain phrases arrest his attention in “Tower 1”: “food supply of the world” “trigonometry,” “shell shock” and “mimicry” illustrated with images of butterflies. Through Dettmer’s nimble manipulation of his knife — which allows you to see deeply into these books — history becomes a kind of vortex, pulling you into its layered depths. Echoing the act of reading, you find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into these forms.
Some may chafe at the idea of these vintage books being sliced and diced. But it is worth noting that the instant one of these printed encyclopedias fell into the hands of an eager 5th grader, circa 1958, the knowledge contained within began to degrade, becoming less valuable, altered by new discoveries. It is impossible to contemplate “Elemental” without considering the elephant in the room: an Internet age that has replaced static knowledge with the ever-evolving and fluid nature of the web. Much of Dettmer’s work is a meditation on how knowledge — in the metaphor of books — changes and becomes outmoded. The point is made in the juxtaposition of two books whose innards Dettmer has cut into, revealing certain cultural preconceptions. In “The Emergence of Society,” a man in loincloth with a bow and arrow is isolated in the book’s foreground via Dettmer’s cutting tools. Next door, another book titled “Man in Contemporary Society” replaces that simple, isolated image of productivity — of hunting for food — into a chaotic gobbledygook of just words: “mathematics,” and “art criticism” and “the activity of thinking.” You wonder if it’s progress or simply one form of civilization pushed out by another.
Dettmer works at a very high level. His artwork is technically proficient to the point of virtuosity. But it is also profound in its meaning and impact: the emotional and psychological significance of books is enormous for many of us. They contain the world in their pages. In Dettmer’s hands his book-sculptures are like globes — beautiful objects full of information, though much of it rendered obsolete as national boundaries shift. The sculptures celebrate the tactile pleasures of books even as they seem to consign them to the historical dustbin.
No work makes that point as succinctly as “Emergency Exit,” a door-sized mass of paperback romance books whose pages have been burned to create beautifully marbled shapes. The work, with its destroyed books, feels like a memorial to the books besieged by the Kindle, the Internet and shortened attention spans. But the work also speaks to the disposability of books, a kind of intellectual kindling, especially the quickly read romance novels burned through and discarded.
“Brian Dettmer: Elemental”
Through Jan. 5. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; free for members and U.S. military with ID; $5 for non-members; $1 for students and seniors. The Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, 75 Bennett Street, Suite A2, Atlanta. 404-367-8700, www.mocaga.org.
Bottom line: A virtuoso of the scalpel, bibliocentric artist Brian Dettmer transforms vintage books into glorious works of art.
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