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Review: Brian Dettmer digs deep in altered books at Saltworks


“New Worlds to Conquer,” Brian Dettmer’s solo show at Saltworks, is as multi-layered conceptually as the carved books of which it is composed are materially. So the best way to approach it is by a short tour of the surface, followed by the depths.

Alongside the expected wall-mounted single volumes, there are sets of antique encyclopedia volumes forming panoramas (“Organized Knowledge in Story and Picture,” above, and “A Loose Leaf and Self Revising Reference”), as well as free-standing sculptures, the global tour of “Encyclopedias of World Travel” being one. Five volumes of “The March of Democracy” are arranged to form a pentagon (below), with the figure repeated in the center by a void defined by the blank margins of the books, in a configuration exactly like the famous building in Washington.

From the first glimpse of the armored fighter in “War Through the Ages” just inside the gallery door, with “Military Preventive Medicine” next to it, it becomes obvious that Dettmer is exploring big ideas, and distinctly connected ones. The maps, state seals and statesmen of the aforementioned encyclopedia of organized knowledge (there are others) transition smoothly to the vividly colored pictures in “The Secret Museum of Mankind,” which show individuals whom the book’s era would have termed “natives,” “tribesmen” or “primitives.” The small book sculpture “The Conquests” is composed entirely of the outlines and names of desert-battlefield geographic features (“wadi”) plus the shape and name of a river (“Euphrates”). We find ourselves in the thick of a bygone age of scientific and geographic exploration, colonial conquest and romanticized racism, more or less from 1880 to 1930 plus a few years after, with an occasional wry allusion to more recent historical parallels.

This leads us to expect heavy-handed ironies and lugubrious political messages. What we get instead are strange, sometimes pointed but more often oblique juxtapositions of words and images, as we peer deeper into the filigree of forms into which Dettmer has transformed the original books. The artist has chosen pictorial themes, but except for the blunt messages suggested by many of the books’ titles (which he has sometimes condensed by removing words from the cover), the connections are associational and metaphoric rather than exact and literal.

This is an inevitable outcome of Dettmer’s technique, which still tends to be misunderstood. While it is obvious to everyone that he carves books into sculptures, not everyone understands the exact procedure. The finished works look so much like three-dimensional collages that some kind of pre-planned program might seem to be at work — the locations of related pictures carefully noted beforehand, the placement of maps logically mapped out. But this isn’t at all how Dettmer works.

One of the German Romantics once suggested that the artist reshapes ideas the way a sculptor does a sculptural material — carefully but freely. Dettmer does this on a very literal level. He chooses a book for reasons of its general appearance and subject matter, but once he has sealed the outside and begun to carve into it, he has no more knowledge of the contents than a sculptor has of the interior of a block of wood or stone. Each layer is a surprise, though not entirely unpredictable.

This needs to be reiterated because, on first encountering his work, it seems impossible to imagine that Dettmer hasn’t approached the task of carving a book the way a writer, book designer or scholar would go about producing one or extracting information from it: the picture on page 347 goes with the text on page 344, which in turn relates to the final sentences of the chapter that ends on page 338.

In other words, creators and commentators alike know exactly what is in the book and how it fits together. Dettmer, by contrast, has no more prior knowledge of these relationships than a woodcarver does of the exact pattern of the knots and grain in a block of wood. When knotty problems appear unexpectedly, they are used creatively. Repeated patterns become apparent in the same way in the books, layer by layer, page by page. What has been cut away can’t be replaced, but its theme can sometimes be referenced.

This is what gives Dettmer’s sculptures their unique intellectual as well as visual dynamic. In the series titled “Civilisation,” copies of the same book (at left) are carved into related but dramatically different combinations of images, making for something closer to the rules of conventional collage — except that the pictures can’t be moved from their original page positions when segments of them reappear. This makes the sculptures something like scholars’ differing interpretations of history, though not too much like them.

In this exhibition, Dettmer is recovering the books that captured — and shaped — knowledge in an era in which Americans and Europeans felt a great sense of self-confidence as their explorers filled in the blank spots on the globe, their soldiers subdued them and their scientists and industrialists gave the explorers and soldiers the tools to finish the jobs. When it was all done, the world had been made safe for the Golden Age of travel and tourism, slightly interrupted by a world war.

People in more humdrum circumstances lived it all vicariously through copiously illustrated volumes like the ones Dettmer has chosen to carve. For readers of these picture-filled volumes, it was all terribly romantic — equal emphasis on “terribly” and “romantic.” In re-disclosing the layered contents of these books, Dettmer has replicated for the contemporary viewer that original experience of surprise, excitement and wonder, along with a light touch of present-day judgment.

The exact mix of delight and critique is left up to us, and that’s what makes these sculptures more than a commentary on a history that is over and left behind. Dettmer restores for us a live experience of books that otherwise would seldom be removed from the shelves of libraries, thrift stores or eBay sellers.

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