You have to see Brian Dettmer's work to believe it, and bibliophiles, fair warning, it's not for the faint of heart. That said, you're in luck. His sculpture, " We wanted to find out a bit more about his process, about what draws him to this kind of work. Here's what we found out.
HFR: Hello, Brian. Your work appears to be very pains-taking. Do you ever consider it as an obsession? Get lost in the intricate details? Do you think it’s helpful for an artist to be obsessed with one thing, or one type of work? Or would you use another word like “focus” or “concentration”?
Brian Dettmer: I like to work on pieces that are methodical and repetitive and I usually find it very relaxing. I think people think of an obsessive tendency because they picture me holding the knife but I really think of it as a relaxing process full of thousands of small discoveries. I never know what is going to appear next while I'm working so it keeps me engaged. I do get obsessed about certain projects but that happens during the in-between times, when I'm not working or when I'm deciding how to start a new piece. Once I begin carving, it all begins to flow and you could say I get lost in the piece. I think it’s helpful for an artist to focus on a process or idea until they feel it’s fully explored. It can take years to get past the surface of an idea. I do prefer to think of it as focus and I guess my obsessive tendencies help keep me there. The tough part is having the discipline and the stamina but once I break past that it’s almost like meditation. The outside world becomes blank.
HFR: What do you have against books?
BD: A blade.
HFR: Ha ha. Put it down. Seriously, though. What drew you to books as a medium for your art? What pulls you towards one book versus another? For example, our cover art features your “excavation” of a set of encyclopedias. Was it just a matter of working up in scale?
BD: I was originally drawn to work with books through a series of collages I was doing. I began ripping up books to apply the pages to canvas and it made me think about all the things that surround that action: the guilt, the value or loss of value and the repurposing of something that used to have a vital monopoly and now has a new role. I mainly focus on reference books because they have had the largest shift in functionality in recent years. The linear structure of a book was always awkward with fragments of non-linear information and encyclopedias in particular have lost their role because we can retrieve anything online in seconds. People hold onto them as relics because they had so much value and they had an intimate past with them and there is a large gap or question about what to do with them now. The physicality of a full set is overwhelming and it makes for great material to explore physically.
HFR: Do you ever develop or feel a kinship with the author(s) of the books you use?
BD: Since I usually work with non-fiction there is often a series of authors or an anonymous author. When there is a specific author in non-fiction its very interesting to explore their perspective from a certain point in time. Theories or concepts often feel outdated, politically incorrect or one-sided in much of our history. There was one story. In this way, I like the idea of taking that story and exposing it at different angles. When I work with literature or fiction the narrative breaks down and works more like poetry or bursts of random memories. I always think about the original story or concepts as a starting point to riff from.
HFR: Do you see yourself, in reforming or transforming often outdated and obsolescent texts, as preserving them or memorializing them in some sense? Perhaps making them more relevant than they would otherwise be in a thrift store or attic?
BD: I do think of it as a preservation in a way. Of course I am killing the book in order to share it. It’s more like a natural history museum than a zoo. At the same time, I don't think of myself as an archivist. I might be an anti-archivist. I'm redefining, manipulating and distorting the books. I'm reusing them but not really preserving them. I'm always conscious about a specific book and its availability. I suggest the erasure of history but I never want to actually practice it.
HFR: Your work, unearthing images and words from old books, and making a visual statement with them, is kind of similar to a poet trying to create a “found” poem with random words they’ve discovered in everyday settings e.g. newspapers/personal emails etc. Do you see a similarity?
BD: Yes. There is a long history of random poetry constructed from existing sources and I feel I'm practicing within that. My work is sculptural but the language also becomes poetry. It’s really interesting to work with a field-specific language like you would find in a medical or mechanical book and tweak the meaning of words by exposing them in a new context. I think images can work the same way as words and often when I expose a single word or an abstract phrase it works more like an image than text.
HFR: Is there a type of writing you feel a particular affinity for? Either for your own enjoyment or for the purposes of your work? Poetry/fiction/non-fiction?
BD: I listen to a lot of audio books while I work. I'm in the studio so often I don't have time to read more than art mags. I'm drawn to almost exclusively non-fiction.
HFR: Many thanks, Brian.
BD: It was my pleasure.
Brian Dettmer is originally from Chicago. He currently lives and works in Atlanta, GA. Dettmer is currently represented by Kinz + Tillou in New York, Packer Schopf in Chicago, MiTO in Barcelona, Toomey Tourell in San Francisco and Saltworks in Atlanta. His work has gained International acclaim through internet bloggers, and traditional media. His bibliography includes The New York Times, Modern Painters, The Village Voice, Vogue Italia, Harper’s, Time Out, Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and National Public Radio, among several others. In the past three years he has had solo shows in New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, Chicago and Miami. His work is shown and collected throughout the U.S., Latin America and Europe and can be found in several museums shows, public and private collections. [Image courtesy of the author and Packer Schopf Gallery]