Growing up Jewish in Orange County, Will Deutsch had an early observation: the art on the walls of Jewish homes, he says, was always a bit… repetitive.
“Regardless of denomination, the thing that I noticed in Jewish homes growing up was at least one of three defining aesthetics,” Deutsch said. “Chagall prints, abstract metal sculpture, and painting of Orthodox Jewish men dancing with a Torah or playing klezmer music in the bathroom or around the hallway.”
While this art may capture the old-world charm and religious iconography of Judaism, it doesn’t exactly feel current. It also wasn’t nearly as exciting as the comic books Deutsch grew up with. His show “Notes from the Tribe” opens this evening at the Gabba Gallery in Los Angeles. It features more than a hundred of his drawings. And they reflect the wide spectrum of Jewish life.
“In my family alone, there is a practicing Orthodox Jew, a conservative cantor, an agnostic and an atheist,” Deutsch said. “But all of us clearly identify as Jews. So I wanted to make work that described that experience. That encapsulated the contemporary Jewish experience.”
The drawings range from a couple meeting on a Jewish dating site, a Hebrew summer camp sing-along, and a girl from the Valley with large Bloomingdale’s shopping bags and a red string around her wrist, a symbol of kabbalah devotees. There’s also a six-foot-tall sculpture of a pastrami sandwich, because what’s Judaism without an outrageous amount of kosher meat?
Deutsch is 29, and grew up in Laguna Hills, where there weren’t a lot of other Jews. His family attended services in the garage of an Orthodox rabbi. High Holiday services were held in a space rented out above a bowling alley. As a kid, he was obsessed with drawing. At recess, rather than play with others, he would hold impromptu drawing workshops.
“My parents pushed me to be an artist the way parents push children to be a doctor,” Deutsch said. “I have been drawing and reading comic books since I can remember. It’s what I’ve been doing since I could pick up a pencil.”
While Deutsch describes himself as a “hardcore secularist,” there are nods to religious life. He has drawings of a Bar Mitzvah boy being lifted on a chair and a young woman entering a mikvah, or purifying bath. And like a sofer, or Torah scribe, Deutsch draws on parchment using a feather quill. Creating these illustrations has helped Deutsch explore what it means to be Jewish.
“Is it doing the Electric Slide at a wedding? Is it eating a Hebrew National hot dog? Is it simply feeling guilty because you don’t go to services? You know, I’ve always said that even if I were eating ham while getting married in a Catholic Church, I would still feel like a Jew doing it,” Deutsch said.
Asking those questions in his artwork has helped Will Deutsch gain fans from the Jewish cultural establishment. He was the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ artist-in-residence, and a recipient of the prestigious Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists.
Will Deutsch’s pop-up gallery show this week features a Bar Mitzvah-style dance party, a storytelling night, and a Friday night pizza dinner… things that all members of the tribe can get behind.