Altered Books

Brian Dettmer’s Novel Carvings

For sculptor Brian Dettmer the age of information in its physical form is disappearing. He writes in his artist statement, “History is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress.” His comment showed a certain prescience especially with’s recent announcement that eBooks were now outselling print books, but in the world of Dettmer these new bookish trends don’t matter a bit as long as he’s able to create his sculptures from old and existing books, and there’s still plenty of those to be found from estate sales to thrift stores.

While studying painting at Columbia College Chicago, Dettmer worked at a sign shop where he studied the relationship between text and images. During his tenure at the shop, he moved away from painting and started to cut newspapers and book pages pasting them in layers on canvases, and creating a textured surface. “I loved the idea that the painting (or collage) surface contained information independent or in decipherable from its own appearance,” he explained in an interview for the Japanese Hitpaper. The cutting and pasting soon evolved to experimenting with book deconstruction—cutting through the covers and slicing text and images to create new works of fine art.

To create his altered books, Dettmer carefully selects a book--his preferences are older editions of hard-covered reference books like dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases. He looks at the book’s presentation, engineering, and construction, and once he’s determined the book is able to withstand the dramatic transformation, he seals the edges, creating “an enclosed vessel full of unearthed potential.” Working with surgical tools, tweezers and very sharp knives, Dettmer, like a surgeon, cuts and slices through the book’s surface, dissecting it and exposing each layer. He cuts around images and text that interest him and notes that nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted—they are simply removed. “Images and ideas are revealed to expose alternate histories and memories,” he writes.

Dettmer’s various works are currently on display at Manhattan art gallery Kinz + Tillou Fine Art. The show will run until June 11th. Among the many works on display, Dettmer has included “World Series” that includes folding, bending, rolling and stacking numerous books before he seals and cuts into them. Other techniques used include sanding that make the books seem more like shaped wooden forms.

Dettmer also parlays into the world of music cassette and VHS videotapes where the materials all are melted, shaped and then welded together to shape skulls, birds, and flowers. These shape-shifting works are Dettmer’s interpretation of how other forms of media are dying or becoming extinct. For Dettmer these changed formats become “reconceptualized and new meanings and or interpretations emerge.”

For more information about Brian Dettmer, please visit To view his work at Kinz + Tillou Fine Art please visit or visit the Gallery at  526 West 26 Street, Suite 416, NYC.



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