Exhibitions of artists’ books are, more often than not, a bit like menu staples; they appear regularly, and when they do we pretty much know what to expect. Brian Dettmer upends any such expectations. If you’re not a student of antiquarian book making practices, chances are you’ve never seen anything like what he has on view on in Textonomy.
Drawing from bookmaking traditions that pre-date even print culture (like 13th century volvelles which contained revolving disks) on through “movable”, “peep show” and “pop-up” books, Dettmer takes a radical approach to this age-old art form: he turns old books into intricate relief sculptures by surgically carving out their insides. The photos, illustrations and text snippets that remain seem to float in mid-air like frozen animations or disjointed pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The books, which for the most part, are bundled together in large groups, have the look of exquisitely detailed dioramas. Imagine reading a book with selective x-ray vision or, viewing an archeological dig where every stage of the excavation process is preserved in visible layers and you get some idea of the effect. If this sounds impossibly complex, well, it is. I was told that the artist seals each book and then slices out the interiors with a knife. It’s hard to imagine how.
This mind-bending aspect is clearly a part of Dettmer’s appeal. More tantalizing, still, are the literary, social, ethical and philosophical implications of what it means to so thoroughly re-present the pieces of a book. Are they counter arguments to the original texts? Assertions of the superiority of pictures over words? Obituaries for the impending death of print media? Or, simply, clever exercises in visual monkey wrenching? It could be all or none of the above. Dettmer, it’s safe to say, is acutely aware of the issues raised, but he avoids facing them head-on, preferring instead to leave open to interpretation the meaning of his surgical interventions into old encyclopedias, textbooks, history books and travelogues and the like. While open-endedness in these ideologically fractious times can be a virtue, it would be far more bracing had the artist used his virtuosity to stake out a more pointed position – a la, say, Kara Walker, Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer — on the subjects his repurposed books purport to re-illustrate and/or deconstruct.
In a several notable instances he comes close. There’s nothing to Fear But has FDR’s words “carved” onto a row of wall-mounted books that are fused together and sealed; the shaved-down exterior of this sleek object is impenetrable, save for small incisions that expose single words. To me, it reads like a manifesto aimed at the plague of book censorship currently sweeping conservative school districts. I also find it significant that several of Dettmer’s book assemblages are shaped like altarpieces. Lands and Peoples, to take one example, extracts clichéd images from travelogues and concentrates them claustrophobically, suggesting Americans’ fears of “otherness” in far-off places like Africa and the Middle East. Universal Standard, a cylindrically shaped piece made to look like a movable postcard rack, reverses the proposition by showing equally clichéd views of mid-century American pop culture – all from books that conceivably might have been read by people in other cultures.
Prose and Poetry Adventures, an altogether different sort of work, presents the subjects two ways: first as a word sculpture in book form and, second, as a piece of concrete poetry, whose excised verbiage appears in a separate frame, bringing to mind both ransom notes and the cut-and-paste technique Allan Ginsberg used to assemble the final manuscript of William Burroughs’ masterwork, Naked Lunch. Then there is the sculptural wonder that is World Books. It consists of 19 encyclopedias opened out accordion-style in the shape of a caterpillar.
Not everything fares as well. Aching Days of England, while visually dazzling, does little beyond eliciting a time travelers’ backward gaze at the vehicles, architecture and fashions of the Victorian Era. Likewise, McMillian, so named for the reference book it savages, feels less like like a comment on its contents than a brilliant piece of Constructivist-influenced geometric abstraction.
Dettmer’s shortcomings as a polemicist in the end are not a make-or-break proposition; in fact they’re nearly overshadowed by his achievements as a sculptor who mines art history, literature, language and the history of bookmaking. But, if he were to establish a sharper editorial focus he’d have something more powerful still.
–DAVID M. ROTH
Brian Dettmer: “Textonomy” @ Toomey Tourell through March 31, 2012.