Artist BRIAN DETTMER Opens Up about Art, Books, and Their Intersection

By Tyler Malone

May 2012

When William Hazlitt stated, “Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own,” he certainly didn’t have the sculptures of artist Brian Dettmer in mind. And yet, the line speaks perfectly to what Dettmer does in his art: he cuts into old books, exposing their souls, and through this exposure, our own secrets are likewise exposed. As he dissects a dying form of art, he toys with changing perceptions of the book and book culture.

He treats books like a sculptor treats marble. Hacking and hewing away at the bound paper, he coaxes out of their pages some story, some emotion, or some resonance, letting the book’s images and words and tactile nature coalesce into something new: a sculpture. I sat down with this book sculptor to talk about art, books, and their intersection.

Tyler Malone: When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

Brian Dettmer: I’ve always been an artist since I can remember. When I was growing up, I was constantly creating and everyone knew I would be an artist. I went through phases of wanting to be a chef, an architect, or a graphic designer, but it was in college when I knew no matter what I had to do during the day to make a living, my ultimate goal was to focus on my work full-time.

TM: So you always knew you wanted to be an artist, but did you always have an obsession with books and book culture?

BD: I’ve always had a different relationship with books. When I was growing up, I was never in to fiction and still can’t say I really am today, but I am constantly reading non-fiction. I grew up across the street from a school for developmentally disabled children and every few months the dumpsters would be filled with books. My brother and I could never believe it. We would go dumpster diving and bring boxes of books home for the library in our attic. Many of the books were useless as far as traditional education goes, but they were beautiful and full of amazing samples of information and incredible images.

TM: How did you come up with the idea of modifying books and turning them into sculptural pieces? What was it that pushed your art in that direction?

BD: In college, I was creating large, abstract paintings that contained codes and language systems. I was playing with the cliché of art as a universal language. After college, I began to rip up newspapers, phone books and then eventually books to apply fragments to the surface of the canvas. This made me think about the book as a material to work with.

I was feeling guilty about working with books, but than began to think about their position and it seemed very relevant. I was sealing books and carving rough holes and geometric shapes into them when one day I was working on a piece, not thinking about how it would turn out, and I came across a landscape that I began carving around without thinking much. Then a figure emerged and it was exciting. I began to carve around that and more things emerged. This was my “eureka” moment. It was exciting because I didn’t know what would come next, and relevant because of the position books are in.

I always knew I wanted to work as a full time artist, but when I was younger I never could have guessed I would be carving books.

TM: Tell me your thoughts on current book culture, i.e. the so-called death of the book, and the rise of the e-reader? Do you see this conversation we’ve been having the past number of years in the cultural milieu as having any bearing on your work?

BD: The current trend in books is part of why I do what I do and part of what makes my work relevant and timely. We just heard the news that Encyclopedia Britannica’s 2010 edition will be the last printed edition. We already see non-fiction books, textbooks and reference books in sharp decline. They are headed to near-extinction, but I don’t think fiction books or the general idea of a paper-based book ever die.

I think about ideas of loss, erosion, distortion and fragmentation and how they relate to digital information and how I can translate these concepts to the material of the book. 200 years from now, or even 2 years from now, many of our digital images and text files may become lost, but the books we have will survive.

TM: Where do you get most of the books you dissect?

BD: I am constantly searching. I search used bookstores, thrift shops, estate sales, garage sales and sometimes online. The size, title, subject, overall feeling and history of the book matter. I want the content to be a metaphor for the way I approach the material.

TM: Tell us a little bit about your process. How do you choose what to bring out of a book? Do you go into it knowing exactly what you’re going to do? Or do you just let it happen?

BD: It evolves as it goes. This is what is exciting for me about the work. When I begin to carve, I have no idea what will emerge on the next page. I have to let the book guide me. I am constantly surprised, and am forced to adapt the composition and concepts within. I want this discovery to happen while I’m working and not ahead of time so I don’t want to know the book too well before I begin–plus, most of the books I work with are out of date or in a reference or non-fiction format that you wouldn’t read from front-to-back.

TM: I read somewhere that you love Werner Herzog. He’s also a favorite of mine. What’s your favorite Herzog film?

BD: Burden of Dreams is probably my favorite film involving Werner Herzog, but it’s about him rather than by him. It’s a documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo and it dives into his psyche. It exposes the impact of the Amazonian jungle, the stresses of pulling off a difficult vision and the pressures of the creative process. I just saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams as well, and it was incredible.

TM: Who are some of your favorite artists–past or present–that inspire you?

BD: Duchamp, Rauschenburg, Tom Friedman, Tim Hawkinson, Tony Fitzpatrick, Paul Miller (DJ Spooky), Buzz Spector, Doug Beube, Ray Johnson, Daniel Johnston.

Brian Dettmer is an artist, originally from Chicago, but currently working in Atlanta, known for his detailed and innovative sculptures with books and other forms of antiquated media.


Brian Dettmer’s Official Site

Brian Dettmer interviewed by Tyler Malone

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of Brian Dettmer and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art, MiTO Gallery, Packer Schopf, Toomey Tourell Fine Art, & the Wexler Gallery

Design by Marie Havens


Page 1/Cover:

Art #1: The Life of Vertebrates, 2008, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 9-1/2″ x 6-3/4″ x 2-1/8″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Packer Schopf

Page 2:

(Left) Art #2: American Peoples, 2011, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, 61″ x 39″ x 14″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Toomey Tourell Fine Art

(Right) Art #3: The New Century, 2008, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish,11″ x 12″ x 11-3/4″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art

Page 3:

Art #4: New Books of Knowledge, 2009, Encyclopedia Set, Acrylic Varnish, 16″ x 26-1/2″ x 10″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Packer Schopf

Page 4:

(Left) Art #5: The National Register, 2010, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, 20-1/2″ x 20-1/2″ x 3″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Packer Schopf

(Right) Art #6: Absolute Authority, 2011, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 9-3/4″ x 7-3/4″ x 4″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Wexler Gallery

Page 5:

Art #7: Webster Withdrawn, 2010, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 11-3/4″ x 16-1/2″ x 13-1/4″
Image courtesy of the Artist and MiTO Gallery

Page 6:

(Left) Art #8: Universal Standard, 2011, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, Steel, 42-1/4″ x 13″ x 13″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Toomey Tourell Fine Art

(Right) Art #9: Lands and Peoples, 2011, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, 29-1/2″ x 29-1/2″ x 2″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Toomey Tourell Fine Art

Page 7:

(Left) Art #10: Tower of Babble, 2011, Paperback Books, Acrylic Varnish, 28” x 10-1/2” x 10-1/2”
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art

(Right) Art #11: Mound 2, 2008, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 11″ x 8-1/4″ x 5″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Kinz + Tillou Fine Art

Page 8:

Art #12: New Books of Knowledge, 2009, Encyclopedia Set, Acrylic Varnish, 16″ x 26-1/2″ x 10″
Image Courtesy of the Artist and Packer Schopf

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