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The English idiom "to do something by the book" means to "follow the rules" or "to do something as you are supposed to do it". American contemporary artist Brian Dettmer has spectacularly managed to turn this expression on its head: He does his art "by the book" – quite literally as you will see below – while at the same time flouting traditional notions of how books and other printed material should be used.

The 37-year-old from Naperville, Illinois, has carved out reputation for himself – again, quite literally – for his surgical-like alteration of pre-existing media such as old books, phone directories and maps to create new, transformed works of visual fine art.

Dettmer studied for a BA in fine arts from Columbia College, Chicago in the late 90s and it was there that he developed an interest in language and image and, in his words, "the dichotomy between the way language appears, the forms that it takes and what it actually represents".

Dettmer says: "I began ripping up newspapers and then phone books and then eventually books to apply the pages to the surface of the canvas.

"Of course, ripping up books made me feel really guilty about what I was doing and made me ask "what do books mean?", "why do we value them the way we do?" and made me look at the actual book as a material to start to working with."

And so Dettmer began working with books as his starting point around 2001 and carving into them in 2003, but it wasn't until 2007 that he began to combine multiple books while also pushing the forms of the single book.

Dettmer"s method is generally as follows. He begins with an existing book and seals its edges, "creating an enclosed vessel full of unearthed potential". He cuts into the surface and dissects through it from the front, using knives, tweezers and surgical tools to carve one page at a time, exposing each layer while cutting around ideas and images of interest.

"Nothing inside the books is relocated or implanted, only removed," he 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.

"In terms of inspiration, the title of the book is usually important, the actual design of the book, the paper type, the image quality, and then the content of the book definitely plays the most important role."

According to Dettmer, his work requires a lot of focus, a steady hand and a lot of patience and he admits that much of it is intuitive – chance plays a major role and he never knows where it will end up.

"I try to push the possibilities with every new piece or series I do,"
he says. "I would say the scale, the detail and the variety of approaches has really evolved over the past few years."

Dettmer's work has been published and exhibited widely around the world and is currently shown by a number of art galleries, including Kinz+Tillou Fine Art in New York, Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago, Toomey Tourell in San Francisco, MiTO in Barcelona, and SALTWORKS in Atlanta.

And so how does Dettmer explain the seemingly broad appeal of his book transformations?

"I think because I am working with books and working with material that everybody is familiar with, everyone can bring something familiar to it," he says.

"It works on several levels. Some people may get caught up in its physical presence and get wrapped into the beauty or detail of the piece without considering my work's philosophical implications but I'd like to think it makes most people step back and look at books in a new way."

For more information on Brian Dettmer, please visit

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