Daniel Hartlaub is a visual artist based in Frankfurt, currently working on comic books.His style is dark and mirrors his preferred milieu, that of the street people he encounters in the low-rent quarter of the city where he lives. The ipad app he uses to create his work allows him to process each stage of a drawing or series of works, and run these as a short movie.
Keith Rodway caught up with him on a visit to Frankfurt.
How would you describe your work, what are its antecedents / influences?
I am much better at describing other people’s work than my own. But I’ll give it a go.
For me the space in which I show my work influences the content of my work and the way I present it. I am trying to put up an exchange of ideas, a communication between the room and my work. In general I would describe my work as a play between fiction and reality using both analogue and digital medias.
I mainly draw figurative things, like buildings, everyday objects and people/animals (so basically everything), I also make films and sometimes performances. All this can be part of a room installation, occasionally with real objects added.
I used to draw mainly with charcoal on paper or canvas. Some of them were massive drawings, maybe 4 meters in length and height. While working on them I began to resemble a chimney sweep. At some stage the charcoal went through the clothes I was wearing and onto my skin. I developed a rash and I had to stop. I subsequently learned about digitally drawing on tablets. By working digitally not only my rash stopped but also it allowed me to make animated films and videos at the same time (the software I am working with records every drawing step you make). So now when I draw I am also making a film. It’s a very experimental process but since the content of my drawings is usually very narrative the film also seems to follow a certain story line. The viewer becomes the witness of the drama of a picture in the making.
That process perfectly combines my two passions: drawing and filmmaking.
Moreover it still allows me to use a certain technique I developed while still working with analogue or real charcoal (a bit weird to make this distinction).
At that time I was unhappy with the limitation of creating grey shadings while working with black pastel or chalk on paper. So I tried working with charcoal and started to completely blacken-out the whole paper with the charcoal. I then used different types of erasers to take away the black and thus creating the content of the picture: objects, people, space and light. Using this technique did in fact give me much more control over lines and shadings. Since then I can’t really draw on a white paper anymore. It feels like there is already everything on there and thus nothing left to draw for me (technically the “color” white is nothing more than the combination of all the other colors). But drawing on black means there is at first nothing, or only darkness. It’s like the sun hasn’t come up yet or the light switch is turned off. So when I draw, it sometimes feels like I am switching the light on in order to make the scene I want to depict visible, or make things come alive.
To my amazement this technique also works drawing digitally, rendering the same charcoal feel to the print outs or to its “digital version” on a monitor. When I print them out I usually use fleece wallpaper or aluminium.
For some people my drawings are too dark and maybe even depressive. But I think that on the contrary I actually bring light into the darkness.
I also draw comics/graphic novels. Having finished a sci-fi comic book (2048- When It All Began) a couple of years ago I am currently working on another one, the super-heroine comic book Rosalie. The main characters of the comic are impersonated by real life actors, who come to my studio, where I draw them.
Using VR-software, I am also planning to integrate film snippets of the story in the drawings of the printed book.
Once the book is out I want to show certain narratives of the comic as a room installation in which comic-based lectures/readings can take place. The roles of the characters in the comic will be then read by the real life actors. The reading will be accompanied by a live soundtrack and projections of the drawings.
Thinking about the influence other artists had on my work I think of people like Francisco Goya, James Ensor, William Turner, William Kentridge, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Albert Uderzo and René Goscinny, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Fritz Lang, George Orwell, Franz Kafka and also Punk bands like The Dead Kennedys and Peter and the Test Tube Babies. I always think of it as a bizarre mix where Pop Culture meets fine artists/writers/filmmakers.
But I think the greatest influence came from my own family. There are plenty of artists around whose work is very good and which I really like. Most of the artwork on the walls of the flat I grew up in came from artists in my family. Sometimes I wish this not to be the case since there are times when I feel like the influence they had on me was maybe too much and thus difficult for me to find my own style and path. And the fact that I like their work doesn´t really help in those moments either.
I´ll mention two of them: there is my uncle Felix Hartlaub (my father’s brother), who started drawing at a very early age mainly grotesque-surreal pictures. Later he decided to become a writer. He died far too young (he went missing in World War II) at the age of 31, leaving mostly fragments of his writings. He and his work have influenced me my entire life till today. Maybe this influence also lasts so long because I never met him in person- but only through his work.
Also there is another (great-) uncle, Arthur Fauser, whose dark and colorful paintings were always an important part of my upbringing.
Is there a coherent alt arts scene in Germany – and/or in Frankfurt, or is it different scenes in different places? If you believe there is would you consider yourself part of it? If not, why not?
Most of Germany’s alt art scene is still happening in Berlin. I believe that’s because Berlin is the only city in Germany which has a true metropolitan feel to it, because of its size, diverse people and architecture. More than any other German city it still has the capacity to slowly but constantly reinvent itself through which it still eludes total gentrification. But big money is also eating up more and more of its space and architecture resulting in higher rents and prices, in this weird and somehow almost fictional “luxurisation” of a certain class of people and in a too often repulsive post-modern architecture. All that makes it constantly harder for artists to find or conquer their own playing fields. But for me the city is culturally speaking still alive and I do have some projects going on there with Berlin based artists.
On a smaller scale the same thing is happening in Frankfurt.
Like the city itself Frankfurt’s art scene is also rather small. The city attracts a lot of attention because of its many banks, its huge international airport and train station. It might give one the impression that the city must be enormous, but it’s really not. If you want a really diverse metropolitan atmosphere, if you are looking for anonymity when you need it you are definitely in the wrong place. But there is a mini version of a big city within Frankfurt, which helps me work and survive here: the so-called Bahnhofsviertel. This quarter which adjoins the main train station includes prostitutes, junkies, homeless people, artists and people running groceries, kiosks, restaurants and bars. At lunch time many bankers and employees from the surrounding service companies drift into the quarter, some of them eating at the restaurants and many of them disappearing into the shady entrances of the brothels. For some time now you also have the newly-rich moving into the area trying hard to get the quarter gentrified. It’s a place full of contradiction.
I like to move in this quarter, because you sometimes get a very powerful whiff of a big city. Ultimately, it’s one of the only places in the city where I can find inspiration for my work. And I am not alone so I have been working on projects with artists who also see this quarter as their playing field.
These projects are mainly sub-cultural but to make them happen you often need financial support. So you either invest you own money, if you have it, or you try to get public funding, for example from the cultural department of the city (if you then can call the project still “sub-cultural” is not for me to judge). I think in part this can create some sort of a coherent workflow between artists, but it´s pretty much project based.
In the city you also have some “artists initiatives” like for example the Farbenfabrik. This former factory is an artist community in the best sense, with a theater, an alternative nightclub and artists working or living there. Many of them are cooperating on different projects. It’s quite an Eldorado for all the artists and other creative people who are lucky to have their studios there (like myself). The only reason why this set-up is still running so well is thanks to the owner of the place, who himself is an artist and likes to support his “colleagues”. Otherwise the place would have probably long been replaced with some hideous-looking building, accommodating some big-money company.
So I guess, depending on the project there sometimes is a coherent alt art scene within Frankfurt and also between different cities in Germany – Berlin being one of them.
Do you think art has a responsibility politically or socially and if so, how does your own practice fit with that? If not, what is its purpose?
Hmm, that of course is a very tricky question. If you say your work is not political then many people might blame you for not being responsible enough towards society. If you say your work is political I think you are not being honest to yourself and towards society. I am trying to stay out of this discussion and just do my work. That’s because for me everything we do, (not only in particular as an artist but as a human being) naturally has a responsibility politically and socially. So yes, of course, art also has this responsibility. But I would never consciously call my work political or social.
In my experience art very often becomes somewhat too obvious and loses its authenticity and can become even pretentious when it consciously wants to be something. It loses its originality.
I think on the one hand the reason why I do my work is a very selfish one, nothing to do with some sort of a mission, like to make the world we are living in a better place. In that context I do my work for a personal reason or desire, maybe to learn about things and the world and thus make myself a better or different person. But on the other hand I am a social being, I like and I feel the need to show my work to others and create some sort of a connection. Sometimes this can result in a communication with that person and that might create new ideas or perspectives for both of us. By making a comment with my work on reality or by fictionalizing it I hope to give people and myself a new or different perspective and way to reflect on reality. Ideally we then both learn from that communication. So I think this is what the purpose of art should be: a way to communicate with yourself and with other people in order to reflect on reality. You might then see things differently and maybe feel the need to change them – ideally for the better.
Daniel’s original drawings LILI are on show at Kaiserzeit Frankfurt (Kaiserstrasse 59) Germany till 2020.
The video for Improvisation 1 by Necessary Amimals is here: https://youtu.be/TZu5gIiDl_w