The title of artist Brian Dettmer’s Dodo Data Dada, showing at PPOW, sounds like cute alliterative nonsense until you realize it’s a clever description of the work on view: Sculptures made of old encyclopedias, a medium nearing extinction, with their pages of data carved into intricate photomontages reminiscent of Dada artists like Hannah Hoch.
The work is a meditation on the endangerment of the physical book in the digital age, but there’s no solemnity here. Instead, looking at these densely detailed, colorful arrangements of text and image feels a little like browsing the I Spy children’s book series. In “New New Standards” (2016), which resembles a totem poll made from ragged encyclopedias, you can spy a brontosaurus, a greyhound, George Washington, an aorta, The Creation of Adam, and an Easter Island head. In “First to Pass Through” (2015), a dazzling mandala configuration bordered by yellow-and-green checkered jackets of old reference books, you’ll find cats, coats of arms, Nefertiti, jump ropes, and William Shakespeare.
Making the works is a subtractive process. Using a scalpel, Dettmer excavates images and words printed in these mid-century texts like an archaeologist. These gloriously defaced books are presented like historical artifacts. This metaphor becomes almost literal in the series “Information,” made from doctored ancient history books, such as Hands on the Past and Lost Worlds. In these book sculptures, Dettmer has dug up pictures of ancient Greek and Egyptian art.
It could all feel like a jumbled mess of random juxtapositions if it weren’t for Dettmer’s astounding technical skill and eye for composition. Pieces from the series “Information” recall clockwork; their beautifully layered images and phrases visualize what reading can feel like, the inner workings of books. Smaller, more understated works in black-and-white evoke fossils, and stacks of jaggedly chopped, yellowed pages start to look like the lumber they came from. These elaborately crafted pieces of book art let you imagine, for a second, that some kind of divine harmony hides underneath the information overload.
Brian Dettmer: Dodo Data Dada continues at PPOW Gallery (535 West 22nd Street, New York NY 10011) until October 15.
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