What’s considered “Jewish art” often includes a Marc Chagall print. Maybe some abstract metal sculptures resembling a menorah or Star of David. Or a painting of Orthodox Jewish men dancing with a Torah or playing klezmer music.
This is the art that Will Deutsch grew up around, and while it may capture the religious iconography of Judaism, it doesn’t exactly feel current. It also wasn’t nearly as exciting as the comic books he loved as a child.
The artwork of Deutsch, 29, an Orange County native, is the subject this week of “Notes From the Tribe,” a show at the Gabba Gallery in Los Angeles that includes 108 of his drawings about contemporary Jewish life, including a couple meeting on JDate, a Hebrew National hot dog vendor, and a Valley girl with large Bloomingdale’s shopping bags and a red string around her wrist. There’s also a 6-foot-tall sculpture of a pastrami sandwich, an example of his whimsical humor.
The Orange County Deutsch grew up in was bereft of Jewish life in the 1980s. “It probably has more strip malls than Jewish people,” he joked. When his family decided to join a synagogue, they went to Chabad of Laguna, and made minyan in the rabbi’s garage. High Holy Days services were held by a Modern Orthodox congregation in a rented space above a bowling alley.
Drawing was an early obsession for Deutsch. “My parents pushed me to be an artist the way parents push children to be doctors,” he 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.”
His mother, Susan Deutsch, is a Conservative Jewish cantor and spiritual leader of Congregation K’hilat Horim in Mission Viejo. “When he was in second grade, he used to draw at recess,” she said. “His teacher called to tell me that he has to play with other kids. The next day, the teacher called me to say, ‘That’s not what I meant.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘He lined them up and is teaching them how to draw.’ ”
Deutsch created his own comic book characters. His father, who passed away four years ago, brought him to Comic-Con in San Diego. Deutsch showed his drawings to the professional cartoonists, who told him he had a future as an artist.
Deutsch’s imagery draws from a rich tradition of immigrant Jewish woodcut artists, also a major influence on Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God,” widely recognized as the first graphic novel. Most of the founding comic book artists and writers were Jewish, and Deutsch can cite the pantheon like a music critic listing the great composers: Maxwell Gaines, a pioneer of the comic book form; Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman; Bob Kane, creator of Batman; Al Jaffee of Mad Magazine; and Stan Lee, former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.
Deutsch’s drawings reflect the lack of agreement of what it means to be Jewish. The Jews in his drawings are wrapping tefillin, but they’re also doing the electric slide at a bar mitzvah and getting Hebrew tattoos on their arms. “My work is meant to function as a lens, not a pulpit,” Deutsch said. “It’s how I see things, not how they are or how they should be.”
While Deutsch describes himself as a “hardcore secularist,” he makes nods to religious life. He’s drawn a bar mitzvah boy being hoisted on a chair, a young woman entering a mikveh, a man blowing a shofar and an older woman making challah. Like a sofer, or Torah scribe, Deutsch makes his drawings on parchment using a quill. “As people of the book, I think that it’s important to have a visual representation of what it means, a snapshot, of our culture at this time,” he said.
The process of creating these images has also been a way for Deutsch to explore his own Jewish identity. He’s learned that he doesn’t have to do “Jewish things” to feel Jewish. “Even if I were eating ham while getting married in a Catholic church, I would still feel like a Jew doing it,” he said.
His artwork is meant to celebrate Judaism and stops short of offering any criticisms. “I think there’s absolutely a place for being incendiary, and I think there’s absolutely a place for being contentious,” Deutsch said. “What would our culture be without argument? I see my place in it as providing the what, and the viewer’s place as providing the why.”
For example, one drawing depicts a mechitzah, the partition separating genders in an Orthodox synagogue. “Some people could see that as sexist or backwards. I choose to represent that as a way that this culture practices and identifies,” Deutsch said. “I don’t see it as my place to lay judgment. I see it as my place to try and represent it as best I can, from the way that I see it.”
That inclusive approach has helped win him fans from the Jewish cultural establishment. He was The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ artist-in-residence, and JCC Without Walls and the Foundation for Jewish Culture both have championed his work. He’s also one of nine L.A.-based recipients of the prestigious Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists.
“People often dissect and take apart the work, finding different kinds of meaning,” Six Points Fellowship director Josh Feldman said. “You also get a kind of reverence that often doesn’t appear immediately in the work and takes a little while to sink in.”