Installation view: David Deutsch: Hurly-Burly, Venus Over Manhattan, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, New York, 2023. Courtesy the artist, Venus Over Manhattan, New York, and Galerie Eva Presenhuber, New York, Zürich, Vienna.
Over the course of his career David Deutsch has been a stylistic nomad. With the paintings that make up the exhibition Hurly-Burly, he has yet again found another way to interrogate painting as a mode of image making and as a process. Given a selection of earlier works in the lower gallery at Eva Presenhuber it is apparent that Deutsch has always been aware that what differentiates a mimetic image from an abstract one is that an image’s mimetic function of simulation is at its highest when the medium least asserts itself; inversely when the medium asserts itself most viewers see its materiality and not what may be encoded in it. As such in Deutsch’s paintings a brushstroke is sometimes descriptive and at other times not. In this, I’m reminded that paintings may be attentively engaged in three different ways: looking at them passively, viewing them with some consideration in mind, or scrutinizing them with the intent of gaining some insight from them.
The division of painting between mimetic and abstract has for a long time been misunderstood, in part because these polarities came to be restructured by the 19th century Realists as a dichotomy between the abstract (i.e., the imaginary) and the representational (i.e., something with an observable referent). Consequently, Courbet thought the Neoclassicists too abstract for the same reason Van Gogh would come to think that of Gaugin: their works—regardless of having recognizable subject matter—were not firmly rooted in the actual, the observable. This in turn led to the idea of abstract art having no referent, and therefore was not representational. What was lost in all of this reformulation was the notion that all art serves a symbolic function and as such is representational—it depicts something besides itself. So, while there’s always some kind of literary content attributable to the images of the people, cars, houses, etc., that populate Deutsch’s paintings, his gestural marks also form networks of signification that take on environmental or spatial connotations.
Given the painterliness of these works, they initially look as if they are indebted to Abstract Expressionism; there is something Elaine de Kooning, circa 1950s about their spontaneity and rapidity, though in actuality, Deutsch’s works such as Untitled (2017) in which a schematic interior industrial-like space containing male figures looking toward what seems to be a wheeless car body owes more of a debt to the premeditation and literalism of Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Cy Twombly who stepped back from such impulsiveness so as to depict it.
I make this association because Deutsch’s principle concern, like his predecessors, is with how sense can be made of a painting rather than with the authenticity of its making. As with the collection of short collage-like essays that make up Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book, One-Way Street, Deutsch asserts an agenda that requires on the part of the viewer an awareness that what is before them is not a thematically ordered whole but a constellation of disparate parts—there can be no closure, there are only Deutsch’s meanderings. What one can conclude from this is that Deutsch’s rudimentary gestural drawings of people, cars, houses and what may be biblical figures dressed in robes are as abstract as the looping brush-marks he uses to demonstrate how the ordering of similar marks and processes produce differing outcomes and effects. For instance, while his figurative elements constitute self-enclosed, object-like fragments, the skeins of brushstrokes are classically composed within the canvas’ edges.
The monoprint process by which Deutsch has made most of his recent works is comparable to how Gerhard Richter makes his abstract paintings. In Deutsch’s case each layer of paint is the trace of the original painted onto a sheet of plastic, which is then transferred to the canvas. What we see is a mirror image of what Deutsch has painted. Unlike Richter, whose abstract paintings are made blindly in one shot, the mechanics of Deutsch’s paintings introduce into his works a modicum of what Marcel Duchamp called “canned” chance—the subversion of the fortuitous and the accidental. While his works look spontaneous, in actuality they may be planned out. This brings his work process closer to Warhol’s—Deutsch literally prints differing images over one another—but unlike Warhol whose photo silkscreened images re-order the initial abstract layer, Deutsch’s layers collapse into one another. This is problematic because it leaves little to no evidence of the true process of their making; as such these works easily slip into their historical expressionist model. (I was clued into looking for traces, and considered the implication of Deutsch’s process because I read Barry Schwabsky’s accompanying essay.)
The layering in Deutsch’s paintings results in a high noise (i.e., medium) to message (i.e., image) ratio, making the results messy, intentionally clumsy, disorienting, withholding, and confusing. The imagery embedded in them must be excavated by the viewer who initially is not quite sure what it is they are looking at or for. Based on this, Deutsch indicates the space within which subjectivity takes form. It is as if in seeking a new way of making a painting, Deutsch found the means to give expression to the confusion of contemporary rural/suburban/country life. This is perhaps the tumult and commotion the show’s title refers to. If so, this may be taken as reflecting a political sensibility, one that is neither literary in form nor tied to a particular social issue but instead built on an economy of similarities and dissimilarities: repetitions and variations, and an inability to differentiate between the two.