Most of us have had the experience of digging into a really good book — making exciting little discoveries on each page, contemplating new information, anticipating what’s ahead. It’s a process that Atlanta-based artist Brian Dettmer experiences far more literally than the rest of us. For the past six years, he has used books as his primary material, digging into them with a scalpel and tweezers to create intricate, X-ray-like pieces.
“I have no idea what I’m going to come across when I’m working,” says Dettmer, whose Working Artist Project exhibition, “Elemental,” opens Friday, October 19, with a 6:30-8:30 p.m. reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia. “It’s a completely subtractive process. I’m never moving or adding anything…. It’s a true collaboration between me and the existing material.”
He begins the process by hunting out vintage volumes with evocative subjects, titles or illustrations, via thrift stores and eBay. He always works with used books, he says, looking for something that has a past of its own, a book that shows some personal history, patina and wear and tear, in addition to having pages with the right sort of weight and thickness for carving.
“Most of the books I use are non-fiction books that no longer have a function or are no longer used the way they used to be,” Dettmer explains. “I will use eBay, but it’s kind of a shot in the dark sometimes. I really have to hold the book to know if it will work for sure.”
Next he varnishes the volume in his studio, sealing the pages and the edges closed so that it becomes one solid piece of material for carving into. “I’m taking something that’s interactive and freezing it solid in time,” he says of the varnishing process. “Once they’re sealed, they’re sealed. There’s no temptation — and no possibility even — to flip through and see what’s coming. It’s exciting for me because the piece is emerging while I’m working. The end result is really the artifact of that whole experience.”
Although the process is entirely sculptural, Dettmer started his artistic life as a painter. He grew up in Chicago and studied painting at Columbia College. After school he worked in a sign shop, and his early abstract, geometric canvases often included language, codes, symbols or letters.
“I was just thinking about that dichotomy between language — its appearance — and what it actually represents,” he recalls. His canvases slowly became more tactile and textural, including ripped newspapers, pieces of old telephone books and other information-rich materials. “I was intrigued by that idea, that the surface contained information even though it wasn’t really legible, it was more universal in different ways.”
He began using all sorts of old media in his work — phonograph records, maps, cassette tapes — things that were still relatively easy to find but that were slowly being replaced in the digital era.
“I liked the idea of the medium mutating into something new, like evolving,” the artist explains. “I was sealing up a bunch of books one day to carve big geometrical shapes in them, and I came across a landscape. I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing, but I started carving around it. A figure emerged a few pages below. It was exciting because I didn’t know that was going to be there. It was really this archaeology.”
It was an archaeology he began to adopt more and more into his work. A few years into his creating such pieces, a journalist casually referred to Dettmer, who still thought of himself as basically a painter, as a “sculptor,” and he slowly accepted that as his line of work.
Dettmer moved to Atlanta from Chicago six years ago (his wife’s job led them here), when he was already well into his successful artistic career. “The first two or three years in Atlanta I was so busy I wasn’t even trying to get involved in the Atlanta arts scene,” he says. “Eventually, I said this was important. I wanted people to know who I am here, I wanted to be part of the arts community here, so I sought out Saltworks and had my first show with them three years ago.
“It’s a good place to live and work, though sometimes I crave a larger art community. It’s small, but it’s good. There’s a healthy attitude.”
He and his wife are raising a three-year-old daughter, and he says it helps to treat his artistic practice exactly like a full-time job, working weekdays during “office hours” in the studio (the sunroom of his suburban home) while his daughter is in day care.
“If I’m not working on my art full time, I feel guilty,” he says. “I feel that as long as I take it seriously and treat it like a real job, it will be one.”
But it’s a day job he clearly loves, one that still holds the excitement of daily discovery. “I’m carving and removing one layer at a time. There might be something really exciting there, but if I cut it off and drop it into a pile and can’t find it, I do sometimes experience regret. But I just kind of keep going, knowing there’s going to be thousands of other options and alternatives.”