Art or prank? Joe Deutch blows himself up
by Valerie Gladstone
Los Angeles artist Joe Deutch has caused quite a stir. He was reprimanded at UCLA as a grad student for going before his class and playing Russian roulette, actually loading a gun and shooting himself in the head. Unhurt, he left the room and set off a firecracker, which sounded like a shot. (His professors dubbed him a “domestic terrorist.”) Since then, he has attached a boot to a police car in broad daylight so it couldn’t be moved, incurring the considerable wrath of the police, and taunted a poisonous rattlesnake into biting him—he lived.
Fortunately for those of us who couldn’t be there, videos of these feats, plus Deutch’s luminous photographs of gridlocked Los Angeles freeways under gorgeous setting suns with ambiguous slogans placed on the railings, are now on view at Marlborough gallery in Chelsea.
Everything the 32-year-old Deutch does has a reason. “I like to bring an aspect of mortality into my work,” he says. “I want to take art out of its artificial shell. I feel there’s a duality in art—that it’s trapped intellectually. On some level, my job is not to make art. I want to focus less on what’s in the art world and more on what’s outside the art world.
“I liked that those works ended up in the media so people could deal with them directly, rather than when art works are in a show. I like the conversation taking place in public,” he says.
In part, Deutch is rebelling against what he perceived as the dominant view when he was in art school 10 years ago, where it was decreed that everything is art. He doesn’t believe that’s true, and thinks it limits the concept of art. For his photographs, he didn’t have to look further than the classic Los Angeles traffic jams for his subject. What caught his imagination was that when the drivers sit there struck, they also probably notice the beautiful sunsets—caused by the fog, he adds—and say, “How pretty.”
This inspired him to put up signs, or at least a few words, on the overpasses for people to read. “Messages,” he explains, “that would be silhouetted against the sky. I choose incredibly cheap and/or incomprehensible messages, and mixed up the letters.” Phrases he used include “Just Kill Her,” “Fuck Iraq, Save Yourself,” “Grow Up,” “Flight or Fight,” “I Have a Gun” and “Go Somewhere Else,” mostly with their letters a jumble. They’re all just about as aggressive and provocative as the scenes he stages.
What’s in the future? “I go back and forth with studio projects,” Deutch says. “When there’s risk, there’s trouble involved and I want to avoid that, so I don’t give my planning away. But I’m not finished with Eli Broad’s construction site, where’s he’s building his gigantic museum”; like many Angelenos and artists, he couldn’t be more against it. Who knows? Maybe he’ll blow it up.
Through July 27, Marlborough Gallery, 545 W. 25th St., 212-463-8634, marlboroughgallery.com.
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