There are lots of ways to look at David Deutsch’s “New Paintings and Photographs” at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. There’s the simple fact of their content, based upon a look at the evidence of people’s private lives. Both the photographs — a wall of 120 8 1/2 inch-by-12 1/2 inch black-and-white prints and six large gelatin prints — and the 16 paintings document the private, domestic, exterior spaces of unknown individuals.
Shot at night from a low-flying helicopter, using police-style searchlights for exacting illumination, the photographs turn invasive surveillance into public information. In these aerial landscapes, we don’t see any human activity except the tawdry remains of Middle America. In virtually all of the photographs, in addition to a vernacular architectural language, the aberrant and jury-rigged geometry of the urban grid is readily apparent. Nomadic cars gone askew, odd and irreverent additions to the buildings, desolate and forgotten children’s toys, abandoned lawnmowers, a silent wind chime, the eroding, seedy infrastructure — all these artifacts of everyday life contribute to a hybrid of landscape and unpopulated portraiture.
Claims can be made for the photographs’ similarity to film-noir episodes and their creepy resemblance to sensational, real-life police dramas (as well as the unconstitutional invasiveness of their surveillance tactics), but these would miss their considerable and unsettling contribution to the art of American landscape painting. There is in Deutsch’s pursuit of the American landscape a social conscience that wants to be objective and to depict, with all of its ugly features, the real thing. The photographic component of his art does that work. But beyond that photographic objectivity Deutsch is after something else, some as-yet-unexplored feature that requires a nuanced mapping. The paintings join in a collaborative graphing of the social landscape to reveal a haunting, surprising counterpoint to the photos.
In Façade (pictured), a large-scale painting in comparison to the photos, Deutsch reduces an aerial view of a classic American tract house to an X-ray-like image. Thinly painted in a subtle modulation of gray tones — at once geometrically serene and flirting with abstraction — this contemporary grisaille (a gray monochrome) is fraught with a dizzying foreboding. As if looking at an X-ray, we search for the aberrant, the out-of-place. Is there the disturbing presence of a figure on the porch to unsettle the placid, serene geometry? Is it a malignancy? A similar drama takes place in all of the paintings in this show.
In the long, narrow painting Motel, a symmetrical image (created by two walkways coming from the back of a low, lateral building) is disturbed by irregular structures at the end of the walkways. As in the technique of grisaille paintings, certain parts of the framing of the building are highlighted in white, as if to indicate a disturbing pattern or questionable feature. All of the building is seen as if we were in motion. In fact, many of Deutsch’s paintings depict architectural landscapes as if the viewer was in motion and thus unable to properly focus on the subject. In some of the paintings, a soft focus creates an all-over, subjectless maze — punctuated by sumptuous swirls and smears —that’s poignantly romantic. Yet patterns are apparent and anomalies abound, and we’re left to explore the landscapes for their locus.
In some of the aerial paintings of neighborhoods or single homes, a pink azalea or magenta dye-like wash is used to highlight the living elements of nature such as trees and shrubs. Slowly a graphic language emerges from the strange grids of the landscapes, as if uncovering a malignant subtext or discerning a pattern of irregularities in a fluoroscope. The florid magenta vegetation of the painting Soleil may look exotic, but might actually indicate an imbalance or kind of mutation in the urban grid.
The possible importation of medical and photographic technologies such as Doppler ultrasounds and fluoroscopy into the genre of contemporary landscape elicits new metaphors and offers a beguiling exposé of the body of our urban landscape.
“David Deutsch: New Paintings and Photographs” is at Susanne Hilberry Gallery (700 Livernois, Ferndale) through June 21. Call 248-541-4700.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org