REVIEW | Brian Dettmer: Antisocial Media


Brian Dettmer: Antisocial Media Packer Schopf Gallery

“A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it or offer your own version in return.” – British-Indian novelist Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie

I wasn’t prepared for the work of Brian Dettmer, not even a little bit. I have seen images of his detailed and innovative sculptures formed from antiquated media, but I had a limited familiarity with the artist or his deeply rooted theories. As often is the case with such intricate and complicated work, the images can’t possibly capture the meticulous depth or delicate nuances I found in every single piece. Dettmer’s conceptual complexity is matched only by his immense dexterity, and both are incredibly irresistible in his current exhibition Antisocial Media at Packer Schopf Gallery. ​​


Literally plunging into his material, Dettmer, through meticulous excavation and concise alteration, edits and dissects communicative objects or systems such as books, maps, tapes and other media. Beginning with an existing book, he seals the edges with varnish to create a completely enclosed vessel that he then methodically dissevers from the front. Working with knives, tweezers, and surgical tools to carve a single page at a time, he exposes layer upon layer, only removing words and images he finds uninteresting. Ideas, memories, and alternate histories are revealed through collaboration with the existing material and its original creator in ways unimagined at its conception. In Antisocial Media, Dettmer thoroughly displays his expertise as a philosophical archaeologist. By uncovering words and images held deep within the printed pages, he masterfully, as noted in the exhibition description, “squeezes out new meanings from between the seams. Words break down and images shift references in new surroundings. Parallels between the printed page and our accepted history are made with the digital era and our accepted future as antisocial interventions are imposed to question the accepted flow and propose new readings and new possibilities.” These unlimited variations within each sculpture offer a variety of statements about our current existence as well as bold predictions for the future, and solidifies Dettmer’s role as historian, commentator, and fortune-teller.


What was once a source of experimentation and encouragement of critical thinking and individual thought, books (specifically) as tangible articles of information are literally disappearing. And as such, in the artist’s own words, our “history is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress. The richness and depth of the book is universally respected yet often undiscovered as the monopoly of the form and relevance of the information fades over time. The book’s intended function has decreased and the form remains linear in a non-linear world.” Aptly titled and evident of this disappearance, Liquidated the Baroque resurrects icons such as Henry VIII, William Shakespeare, and Elizabeth the I who are woven between rich patterns and striking topographical designs. Idols of historical and cultural significance, they (and their achievements) are still pronounced hundreds of years later; a gravity that is beginning to fail as society moves from the human hand and relies only on the machine.


By altering physical forms of information and shifting preconceived functions, new and unexpected roles emerge, prominently addressed in the sizeable series titled Americana 62. Made from a full blue-toned Britannica encyclopedia set from 1962, Americana 62 feels like a tangled time capsule. A unique interpretation of and comment on the history of America, through the information deemed noteworthy from some fifty-three years ago, Dettmer creates a dense revision: an audacious maze of entrances and exits that guide me along the flashes of American celebrities and landmarks, but in the end leads nowhere. As individuals and as a nation, we have changed and continue to do in an unequivocal and unsatisfying state of flux – the question is, to what end?


As the means for information, or as Dettmer refers to them “intangible routes,” thrive with quicker fluidity – what has been and how it has existed are being lost, slipping and eroding into the ether. Unrestricted by the weight of material and the responsibility of history, these newer medias swiftly flip form without regard for accuracy or legacy. Mind, one of the most linear and assertive of all the pieces, gnaws at the importance of effective communication. “Of psychology…figure…mind…to be without shape or form” begins a diatribe of the search and unconscious implications of non-verbal communication. Is this an experiment of our individual limits, a depiction of our current reality, or a plea for a return to genuine discovery? Dettmer systematically delivers all three.

With every cut, every layer removed or left intact, there are choices that have been made, so it seems appropriate that another reading of the title, as suggested by Gallery owner Aron Packer, to instead be Anti-Social Media: a clever stance by Dettmer to “oppose the prevailing information landscape full of trivial detritus and narcissistic notions” that we (as a society) are collectively being suffocated by. “This antagonistic position is increasingly pertinent as digital media, initially rich in formats and voices, moves back towards a platform of a few authorities controlling and facilitating the flow and forms that our ideas and communications must conform to.” ​​


From the sides and the back, Interiors appears as an impressive stack of ten, full-color, hardbound books, but from the front and the top – this precise chaos is evident. As though it has eaten its way through and below the staunch pillars of rational and substantial thought, this digital excess distorts and devastates the possibilities for true understanding, just as Dettmer has sliced through the unending layers leaving little that is recognizable in his wake. Unable to isolate information, accurate and true, I must submit to the crushing pile that leaves little room for breath or separation. It is easy to feel as though the ether is winning.


As an ultimate comment and evocative totem: Womb, a burdened object with an equally loaded title, is my favorite piece. A circular column created from a forcibly contorted text, excavated images of the body are paired with inflammatory references to chemicals, vehicles, fruits, and herbs. Symbols that characterize both life and death, Womb raises questions of society’s ability to both insulate and protect all the while it isolates and annihilates. Our bodies are impossible creations, worthy of wonder and respect, but yet our capacities and motivations (depicted here in the pitch black voids Dettmer carves deep into the core of the text) also manifest a fearful abyss of which we may never return. What kills us may, in the end, be of our very own doing.

French poet and novelist Marceline Desbordes-Valmore once asked, “Are we not like two volumes of one book?” I believe Dettmer’s re-contextualized works answer with a resounding yes; and quite often he presents a sequel that is dramatically more intense and evocative than the original. Whether we, as a society, return to tangible forms of information and enlightenment or we continue to slip further down the rabbit hole, Dettmer’s works act as a visceral and complex mirror that cannot be ignored. I invite you to take a long hard look.


Brian Dettmer: Antisocial Media is on view through June 27, 2015 at Packer Schopf Gallery, located at 942 W. Lake in Chicago, IL. The artist will be present for the closing reception on June 27 including a lecture at 4 before the reception at 5.

For more about the exhibition, visit:

For more about the artist, visit: ​​ Author’s note: It is also with great sadness that this will be the final exhibition at Packer Schopf Gallery, so be sure to stop in and say hello and wish Aron the best as he moves on to his next adventures. ​​

Images from top to bottom (courtesy of Packer Schopf Gallery): You Know What You Should Do (detail), 2015, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, 19-1/2 x 70 x 2 inches; Displays One Particle (WGA4), 2015, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 8-7/8 x 7-5/8 x 1-3/4 inches; Liquidated the Baroque (Cut Through Series) detail, 2014, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 10 x 11 x 3 inches; Americana 62, 2013, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, Installation Dimensions Variable (24-1/2 x 44-3/4 inches, 27-3/4 x 33-1/2 inches, 24-1/2 x 44-1/2 inches, 30-3/4 x 39-1/2 inches, 27-1/2 x 39-1/2 inches) x 2-1/4 inches (5 parts); Mind (Cut Through Series), 2015, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 8-3/4 x 6-1/4 x 1-3/8 inches; Interiors, 2014, Hardcover Books, Acrylic Varnish, 11 x 12-3/4 x 10 inches; Womb, 2015, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 8-1/2 x 5 x 4 inches; As many paths as possible, 2014, Hardcover Book, Acrylic Varnish, 8-1/2 x 7 x 1-3/4 inches

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