Most of the time when I like a piece of art it’s the finished product I’m interested in more than the process. There are exceptions to that, of course—certain kinds of performance, or when I’ve watched a friend’s work-in-progress blossom from rough draft to finished copy. But unless references to a work’s genesis are intentional, I’m generally more concerned with what’s in front of me than how it came to be.
I’m a huge fan of Brian Dettmer’s altered book sculptures, as I’m sure a lot of Like Fire readers are already. As objects by themselves, they’re possessed of real beauty and mystery. But because they also deal with the process of emergence, of images being sequentially manipulated to reveal new meanings, I find it impossible not to think about their evolution. Most sculpture involves both addition and subtraction somewhere along the way. Dettmer works his alchemy by removal only, and—at least to me—it’s a constant invitation to imagine what that process must look like.
Which is why I really like this CBS News video (via Hayden’s Ferry Review blog—Dettmer’s work graced the cover of their Spring/Summer Issue last year): It shows him cutting. Only for a few moments here and there, but they’re still entrancing glimpses. He considers each book in its raw state an “enclosed vessel full of unearthed potential,” and that comes through as he carves and removes. There’s something of those childhood lift-the-flap books to watching him work, and a bit of the surprise—even though you know what’s coming—when you bust open a dull, lumpy pomegranate and first see those incandescent seeds. Dettmer says:
My work is a collaboration with the existing material and its past creators and the completed pieces expose new relationships of the book’s internal elements exactly where they have been since their original conception.
All art is about uncovering what exists, whether from new materials or existing ones, but the literal sense of that in Dettmer’s work really is like a magic trick in slow motion. Take a look:
(Altered book above is Today’s World, 8″ x 5-1/2″ x 1-1/2″, © Brian Dettmer 2007. Image courtesy of the artist and Toomey Tourell Fine Art.)