Capturing time before urban space disappears
Christian Rothenhagen is a very versatile working Berlin artist, designer and illustrator, who has been creating very unique pictures of the city for nearly two decades.
Grown up in East Berlin, Rothenhagen started drawing as a child and drawing is still the solid basis of his artistic work today. Urban youth cultures also influenced him and he became a passionate skateboarder in 1984, who roamed the city and developed a very personal view on the city. His involvement with architecture and urbanism sharpened his searching eye for selected cityscapes. He associated certain corners in Berlin with personal experiences, corners he felt the need to be captured. The city of Berlin with its many historical transformations and urban changes, where buildings disappear or grow at a rapid pace, visual free spaces become scarce, is still his source of inspiration. But the 46-year-old takes a critical view of the sometimes loveless urban development plan for Berlin, and thus his works also have a socio-political dimension, because they point out change, capture/freeze „architectural moments“ in time, without merely wanting to appear nostalgic.
Rothenhagen has been active as an artist and curator in the alternative art scene since the beginning of the 2000s. For several years he co-curated exhibitions at the Bread&Butter fair, led a project space with deerBAR in Torstraße in Berlin-Mitte and is well connected in the independent art scene as well as the urban art scene.
Since 2003 Rothenhagen has been placing paste-ups and painted tiles in the urban space, which he leaves discreetly attached in the streets. There are up to 400 tiles all over the world, he called this project „My dad was a tiler“. The small black city drawings on white tiles, however, are often dismantled and disappear, or they are intentionally preserved when walls around them are renovated. And Rothenhagen likes to paint walls, whether indoors or on house facades. Since 2003, he has repeatedly painted large-format commissioned murals with rollers and paint, markers, brushes, and rarely using spray cans.
It was also in the early 2000ths. that the Berlin artist developed his studio name and the visual deerBLN. The deer stands for him as a universal animal that exists nearly globally. It combines opposites such as „fragile and strong“, „wild and graceful“… Since then, the silhouette of two deer has been the trademark of his free art projects and deliberately contrasts with his urban motifs. In Berlin deerBLN was represented from 2008 to 2013 by Strychnin Gallery for the EU and the East Coast of the USA. From 2010 to 2012 Rothenhagen was co-curator for Blooom Art Fair in Cologne and since many years he has been working as a designer and illustrator as well as a freelance university lecturer for design/ illustration.
Urban Still Life
For his mixed media drawings – done with fineliner, pencil, marker, varnish, epoxy resin casting, his graphics, or his painted murals – Rothenhagen selects street views, backyards, facades and firewalls of Berlin buildings/ streets, corners in the city with which he associates certain life events. For the time being, he captures them photographically, before he transforms them into drawings, graphics or paintings in his studio.
Rothenhagen wants to capture the time of urban space and thus immortalize it in his works. His city excerpts, his view of certain corners, such as „urban windows“, are depicted without living creatures, cars, trees… for the architecture, the cityscape itself is the actual subject and should not be degraded as a background. Architectural and urban infrastructure elements such as power poles, cables, signs or traffic lights are usually incorporated graphically as concise shadow images. Street signs without names do not allow for an unambiguous allocation of places; they appear anonymous and yet strangely familiar. His pictures, often arranged as series, are partly reminiscent of black-and-white city photography, with personal perspectives, zooms and image details, which, through the choice of his mostly bi-chrome color palette – such as warm grey and brown tones, determined by the background of cardboard or old paper…, or tones such as plaster paints – are reminiscent of walls and weathering. Usually the sky is a free space in the picture and gives the elements space to breathe and thus creates depth. His works are like sensual perceptions of quiet, abandoned urban spaces. He creates quasi-urban silent poetic still lifes that radiate tranquillity and softness, and deals very playfully with the sometimes repetitive motifs, thus constantly creating new perspectives and new symbols of various sections. Whether past, still existing or fictitious, one does not know as a viewer, but the artist has his own story to tell for each picture.
Interventions in San Francisco, the „home away from home“
Not only his love for „his“ Berlin moves Rothenhagen to draw these fragmented, but also his love for San Francisco. City excerpts from there have been part of his work since a long time. It was 1994 when he flew for the first time to the city in California, the skateboard paradise, and since then he has been drawn to it again and again. Over the years he made a bunch of friends there, built up a large network and exhibited several times and also painted murals. In 2008 he was part of a larger exhibition with the collective Oyster Pirates at Varnish Gallery e.g. …and by the end of 2018 the art projects in San Francisco were overflowing. First, his planned solo show took place in the Roll-up Gallery, for which he painted all the walls inside and which became an installation by pulling real cables into his large-format picture, just as he had already integrated real black traffic lights in front of large formats in the past. There were no pictures hanging to the walls – the room itself became the picture.
Afterwards, a mural was created inside and another one outside the building of the club Public Works next door. During his stay, the Berlin artist was also invited to paint in the The Midway SF, a huge area for art and music located at the dogpatch, the old industrial harbour. In just six days Rothenhagen painted the backstage area of the main stage of the concert hall as well as a large mural outdoors and left another time formative cityscapes at spots in San Francisco.
Art in public space is per se political
For the artist working with the urban, art in public space is per se political, because the intervention brings about change in urban space that affects and can influence the viewer. Taking up political and socio-critical themes and pointing out grievances such as the Berlin collective Rocco and his brothers is extremely important and, in his opinion, one of the tasks of urban art. This art with its manifold forms and means of expression develops rapidly, unfortunately also with great different quality, but on the street it is mainly about the good idea, which echoes, according to Rothenhagen.
The marketing and appropriation of urban art by companies is a logical consequence of the mass effect of this. But as an urban artist, the question arises how far one will participate, position oneself and still remain free in creation. Artists who work in urban space have a responsibility as publicly visible interveners. Rothenhagen’s work testifies the responsibility to act as a contemporary witness and artist in order to poetically capture a transient momentum of cityscapes in drawings before these disappear more and more through the rapid and rigorous real estate market.
Text by Katia Hermann