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Brian Dettmer at Virginia MOCA

“One of our primary goals is for Virginia MOCA to be recognized as THE museum to view the art of now. We want our name associated with not only what’s happening in the art world, but what’s on the forefront,” says Debi Gray, executive director of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, located in Virginia Beach.

“Elemental” (through August 18), is an exhibit by internationally renowned sculptor Brian Dettmer, whose C.V. is replete with shows from across Europe as well as the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Dettmer uses outdated mass-produced books such as encyclopedias, medical guides and atlases that are, in his words, “rich with information and ideas.” While modern information gathering has become distinctly non-linear thanks to the Web, with knowledge and ideas seeming to float around in the air above our computer screens, books are physical, tangible and linear sources of information. By appropriating and altering these dinosaurs of form and content, Dettmer redefines them, making them into something quite different. No longer dormant closed objects, images and words now explode forth from within. Dettmer’s intricately carved pieces, call to mind scrimshaw or the inner workings of a clock; certainly not the books, cassettes and maps they once were. They’ve been transformed from their previous incarnation into contemporary sculptures to be exhibited and admired, giving them relevance once again.
Dettmer sees his work as a collaboration with the existing material. After first sealing a book’s edges, he then uses knives, tweezers and surgical tools to quite literally dissect it, exposing various layers and cutting around words, ideas and images that he stabilizes with varnish. It’s a bit like a treasure hunt. He can’t control what’s coming as he excavates the layers, but he can react to it. Nothing is added or moved around inside the book, only taken away. When he’s done, the relationship between the internal elements has been completely changed into a very different reality from that which existed in the original with new meanings, patterns and interpretations. What’s left is a visually rich and complex object that renews our wonder in the magic of these informational artifacts.

In 2010, Virginia MOCA joined that exclusive club of museums accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, an honor bestowed on less than 5 percent of all U.S. museums. Gray shepherded the institution through the final phase of the demanding accreditation process. Excellence in programming is key, but also vital is a state-of-the-art facility. Virginia MOCA has both.

Completed in 1989, the impressive E. Verner Johnson and Associates-designed building, which sits on a wooded site just six blocks from the ocean, has a vaguely Asian feel. The 38,500 square foot building was constructed with particular forethought for the museum’s primary activities—exhibitions, studio art classes, events and private functions. The 6,300 square feet of exhibition space is equipped with a flexible movable system of wall panels, permitting spaces to be arranged as needed. Daylight from clerestory windows can be regulated by electric solar shades. And it’s not all window dressing. Behind the scenes, there’s ample exhibit staging area including workshop, and art and crate storage areas. And, of course, the galleries are precisely climate controlled.

It’s a far cry from Virginia MOCA’s modest beginnings. In 1952, a group of local artists organized an art sale to benefit Winifred Nixon Greene, a local watercolorist who had had a debilitating stroke. After the success of the event, the artists founded the Virginia Beach Art Association. In the beginning, the VBAA held summer art classes, lectures and exhibitions in libraries and schools until eventually, they acquired a small oceanfront facility at a former municipal office building at 1916 Arctic Avenue In 1956, VBAA presented the first Boardwalk Art Show. Situated along the oceanfront boardwalk, the annual four-day event has become wildly successful with an average attendance of 200,000 and a “Best in Show” prize of $10,000. It’s ranked #34 in national outdoor art shows by Sunshine Magazine and is a major fundraiser for Virginia MOCA.

“MOCA is making strides in distinguishing ourselves as a top national museum destination.” says Gray. She points to “Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Project (May 30-August 18)” recently included in The Huffington Post’s Summer Art Preview’s must-see exhibits along with shows at such prominent museums as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, MCA Denver and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “This national attention is exactly where MOCA wants to be.”

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