Represented by New York's prestigious Kinz, Tillou + Feigen gallery, the former Chicago-based artist Brian Dettmer creates works using "dead" cultural detritus (celluloid, books, cassette tapes) and shapes them into meticulously crafted sculptures, some of which can be seen through Feb. 16 in the Romo Gallery group show Selects.
Can you explain how you make your book sculptures? You've described the process as dissections or excavations: So are we talking scalpel or pick ax? With most of my book pieces, I begin with a book that has a good title and subject, interesting content and an appropriate overall feeling for my approach. I seal the page edges and I carve into the book from the front. I don't plan what images or text I will use so after the book is sealed I have no control over what will expose itself as I work, only over what I decide to retain or discard. I work one page (or layer) at a time and I never move or add anything, so everything you see in the finished piece is exactly where it has always been. In this way I am literally excavating the interior contents of the piece. I use X-Acto knives, tweezers and some other small surgical tools to hold things in place and pick out material.
Do you ever feel any guilt about carving up old books? Guilt is an interesting issue. I used to. There is this idea that books are sacred relics that should be cherished for eternity, as if they are the actual information, ideas and stories they contain. Most books are mass-produced and most nonfiction books become irrelevant after a few decades. Too often, we are left with dysfunctional shells that are displayed as symbols of intellect or discarded with guilt. When carving books, I like to think that I put enough energy into the piece and pull enough power out of the piece to justify my kill.
You've also fashioned skulls from melted Led Zeppelin, Mötley Crüe and R.E.M. cassette tapes and you recently crafted an "homage" of sorts to Gone With the Wind, creating a tree branch out of celluloid from the film. What ideas do you think link these disparate works crafted from discarded media? There are a lot of parallels in the way nature and technology evolve, mutate and transform to survive.
The works look incredibly labor-intensive. What are you thinking about as you methodically cut into these books? And how long does it take you? I listen to a lot of music, audio books and other recordings (podcasts, NPR, etc.) while I work. I think about every move I make and every text fragment or image I expose and how it relates with the meaning and composition of the other elements.
The fragmented portions I encounter as I work are more appropriate with the way we absorb information on the Web and the way our memories function.
What's the last great book you read? Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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