CMA Stories

Get to Know Artist Brian Dettmer!

Have you seen CMA’s new exhibition, A Way With Words: The Power and Art of the Book? On view through April 29, the show explores the transformation of everyday books into expressions of identity, community, environmentalism, memory, and reconstructed narratives. 

Brian Dettmer is an artist that transforms books and other found objects into elaborate sculptures. To get us ready the exhibition, we asked Brian some questions about his creative practice. Get to know him below!

How does collaboration and listening to other stories play into your work?

I always think of my work as a collaboration with the existing material and its creators – whether it be an individual author or artist or an encyclopedia publisher and its team of researchers, writers and illustrators. I can’t take credit for the images in my sculptures because they are all found in the existing books I work with. I want there to be an honesty in my work so that the viewer can appreciate and see what was there while I expose the content in a new context, presenting the material in a whole new way.

My work is full of stories from history and from fiction that I often break down to their basic elements. Recognizable places, faces and text become juxtaposed with fragments from other stories. I am interested in what happens when narratives break down. We appreciate the elements of history on a less linear path, much like we experience the Internet and the real world as we walk through it. The viewer can then decide how to create new stories from what they see.

How do you know when an artwork is finished?

I try to find a balance between the existing book and the work I put into it. I want to create something that feels sculpturally solid but also has a visual and conceptual balance. I want to push my work to be as detailed as possible right before it all starts to slip away into texture and noise. As many artists do, I will get to a point where I think the work feels finished but then come back to it after some time away. This could be a few hours or it could be a few weeks. Then when I look at it with fresh eyes I will either see that it does feel finished or I might find that I need to push it further.

What changes do you notice in your practice over the years?

I began working with books around 2001. At that time, most of my work was derived from a single book with a frame or window carved into the front cover. I have pushed the format to find a variety of shapes a single book can take and began using several books connected together to create larger, more intricate works. The detail and the scale has increased over the years but more importantly, I find that the context of my work has shifted as our relationship to books and the information we absorb has changed. I began by contemplating the shift from the paper book to the digital during the (somewhat) early years of the Internet, but I never could have predicted how quickly the relevance and use of reference books would decline. I love that we have instant access to information and many new perspectives to consider, but we have lost a stability and comfort with the authority of truth as our references have shifted from a tangible and validated source to a variety of malleable resources, biased opinions and now, too often, intentional distortions and fabrications of false facts.

Do you have a favorite art-making memory from childhood?

I have always thought of myself as an artist ever since I can remember. I loved to draw and create things. In middle school I illustrated the cover of our yearbook and I remember that as a big moment when I realized that what I loved to do could have a big impact and receive positive recognition. In high school I learned to paint and experimented with drawing, painting and sculpture in as many ways as I could imagine. Some of it was pretty good, some of it was garbage, and some of it concerned my parents because it was pretty far out there for a kid in the suburbs of Chicago.

What advice do you have for a young artist?

I would say that you should never be afraid to try something new and to make mistakes. Nothing is going to be perfect right away and you will never get to something that is original without taking some odd risks along the way. It is important to learn the basic skills and to feel comfortable with any process you want to use, but then you should try to break the rules. Don’t worry about being weird. If you were the same as everyone else, people probably wouldn’t be interested in what you’re doing. Think about what you are doing and how it might say something that hasn’t been said before. Push things as far as you can to find something completely new.

What is your favorite children’s book?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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This program is supported, in part, by the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts with support of Governor Andrew Cuomo, and public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. 


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