Brian Dettmer cuts up books. Carefully slicing away big parts of the pages and covers, he leaves the binding intact and an image or key words on each page. Displayed behind glass in wooden cases, the layered leaves resemble archaeological strata. Usually he chooses old, unused books. “How often do you use an old atlas compared to the Internet?” he asks. “Nobody’s going to learn from a 1940s eye-surgery book.” In many of the pieces at Aron Packer, the forms he’s chosen highlight the book’s content, causing the viewer to reflect on the subject in a new way. The Way Things Work, made from a book of the same title, interweaves machines and gears from various pages into one huge mechanism, with only some of the parts visible. Eye Surgery combines eyes, diagrams of optic nerves, and surgical instruments.

Dettmer, who made paintings and drawings influenced by German expressionism in high school, began experimenting with labor-intensive conceptual art as a Columbia College undergrad, making pieces based on enlarged braille: each letter was about four inches high, and he replaced each dot with an object. That led to a series based on various symbolic systems, such as Morse code and American Sign Language. Wondering about the way abstract works communicate, he asked himself: “‘What if Pollock’s paintings are codes?’ Then they would be read completely differently. I couldn’t just paint for painting’s sake–I wanted to get away from thinking about expressing myself.”

Though Dettmer has supported himself at various visual communications jobs where clarity is paramount–he worked part-time for a sign-making company in college and today works for a business that designs and installs signage for institutions–in his own art he typically reconfigures information into paradoxes and labyrinths. After graduating in 1997 he began making “book paintings” in which he pasted pages on canvas and then ripped them off, leaving fragments and repeating the process to produce a chaotic layering. “I’ve never believed that you can absorb the content of a book by looking at it on the surface, but the idea is intriguing,” he says. Thinking about the way his roommate’s cat understood the world, he wondered about obtaining “alternative” information about a book “if you scratched and smelled it” and began cutting into books. The first time was five years ago, in Alternate Route to Knowledge, for which he glued a stack of old encyclopedia volumes together, then dug a hole in the center with a knife. He started carving more purposefully when he ran across a landscape scene in a book he liked and carefully cut around the mountain within it.

Dettmer, who grew up in Naperville but now lives in Chicago, was raised Catholic, and the religion left its mark. “One thing that still interests me about Catholicism is the idea that a physical object actually is or contains something else. It’s not just a metaphor–‘this wine is blood.'” But by his early teens he was rebelling against church dogma. “I realized that there are different cultures, different religions. In Catholic school they didn’t try to teach you to understand other people’s points of view.” By reducing books to their physical roots, Dettmer aims to increase their accessibility. “Art is supposed to be this universal language, but English is understood by a fraction of the world. If I rip up the text everyone can see the pattern and texture–everybody’s understanding is on the same level.” Recently he made six works by cutting away everything from maps of the 50 states except major highways, then mounting the states from a single region on top of one another between layers of glass. Because the midwest has so many states compared to the southwest, Midwestern is much denser than Southwestern.

At the show’s opening someone told Dettmer he must be crazy to do such repetitive, time-consuming work, but he finds the process meditative. He only skims the books in advance, so their content often surprises him: “Going through a book is like traveling somewhere you’ve never been before. It’s like walking through woods and seeing a river, or turning a corner in Rome and there’s this amazing building.”

Brian Dettmer

When: Through Sat 1/14

Where: Aron Packer, 118 N. Peoria

Info: 312-226-8984

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.