in the Category: art

New Masters: Jelle Denturck

Keith Haring is your rags to riches textbook example, your modern Oliver Twist moving from being a post boy in Pennsylvania, painting on the New York subway – and getting arrested for it – to highbrow exhibitions all over the world. There’s some irony in moving street artists to museums, but it does spread his message of equality. As a gay AIDS patient, he reflected upon the troubles of his time – troubles still relevant today. Yet he managed to bring humor and joy of life in his work. As Jelle Denturck, cartoonist and lead singer of punk band dirk., puts it: Haring’s characters are falling but look very happy while crashing down the stairs. In the end, 'the only thing you can try to do is tell people to chill and like each other, right?’

Interview by Milena Maenhaut
Photos shot at Bozar by Miguel Soll

What are you working on at the moment?

I just finished recording a new album. The first single will be released on February 7, just hold on a little longer. Right now, I’m working on the artwork.


Are you going to animate the video clips again, like you did for ‘Sick ‘n Tired’?



I was watching the clip yesterday on YouTube and stumbled upon the comment ‘beautiful but the image is quite jerky sometimes, grtz’, which was sort of the whole point, wasn’t it?

Yeah, that was the whole idea. (Laughs) I didn’t know how to animate stuff at that time so I had to figure it out along the way. We screened the result on a crappy old television and filmed that in turn. Afterwards, we used some video synthesizers to distort the images even more.

Keith Haring would often work quickly, making about forty paintings in a day and distribute those very quickly. It fits his idea of making art accessible for everyone. What’s your creative flow like? 

I like that about him: I like to work quickly, too. A work of art has to say what it wants to say, and that’s enough. I’m not a perfectionist at all, I get bored pretty fast. When writing an album, we lock ourselves up for a week or two. Do you know those drawings where you have to connect the dots to make a figure? We’re going to add something like that to the record. I like the spontaneity and speed of it. You start at point A and don’t know where you’re going to end up.

I just feel this need and I feel it all the time. I’m constantly inspired by everything

What inspires you? 

I don’t know why I want to write, make music and draw. I just feel this need and I feel it all the time. I don’t know where it comes from and it’s certainly not unique. I’m constantly inspired by everything. It’s freeing not to think of inspiration in terms of art. We mentioned Rick and Morty and Bojack Horseman as the inspirations of our first album. Now I’m watching fucking Spongebob - you can find inspiration everywhere.

Were you already acquainted with Keith Haring?

It’s the first time I see Haring as a true activist, as someone who was really involved with his surroundings. I like how he dates his works, doing so he makes his art contemporary. A lot of artists try to make something for the eternal, but not Haring.


Yet the issues he portrays are still important today.

Yes. The documentary about the Act Up movement and the AIDS crisis really hit me. The movement was hopeful and the support was immense. You could see it in the eyes of the protesters who marched to the White House to release the ashes of their loved ones. I’m gay myself and it’s gripping to see a movie like that made about 30 years ago showing issues that are still relevant today. I cried on election day last May because a quarter of the population voted for a party that doesn’t want gay people to be around. 

In an interview with De Morgen you said that music has to be urgent. Keith Haring believed the artist should be the spokesman of his time. Which leads us to the classical stance of art as activism or art for art. What’s your opinion on that?

I don’t think art should be activist. Some people just don’t have that much to say or that much to be angry about. That’s okay too. I’m white and male, I shouldn’t complain. Of course, being gay I know what it’s like to feel left out or to be considered weird. But I’m not an angry person. These last years the world has become a weird place to live in. That slips into my work of course. I don’t consider myself an activist, never have. But lately? Maybe more. A reaction is needed. Yet I don’t like shouting stuff, I just ask questions. I think it’s important right now to not be angry because there are already so many angry people out there.


And when you’re angry all the time, you might forget to enjoy life.

Haring was really good at that. He was a cheerful rebel. Enjoying life, having fun. Being gay brings discrimination – we still are discriminated in many ways - but is also really fun. (Laughs)

He was a cheerful rebel. Enjoying life, having fun

You often describe your work as being soaked in scepticism and nihilism, but always in a fun way. Your Total Acceptance drawing series fits in that idea, for instance.

It was a fun thought experiment. What if everyone accepted themselves for who they are, even when they’re assholes? It would be easier to change people and to get rid of false beliefs. I’m working on a new series, called Total Control. It’s about people saying they have total control because they have done small insignificant things, like making a sandwich. Humour is the perfect antidote for times like these, times in which people take themselves too seriously. Times in which world leaders have become egos who stopped thinking about the cause or the world, focusing only on themselves.


This week was particularly bad for idiotry in world politics, with WW3 coming and all.

(Laughs) They’re like little angry children on a school playground, taking away each other’s stuff and hitting each other with sticks. Yet they have so much power.


For me, humour is a link between your work and Keith Haring, who is reflecting issues while still making his work look cheerful and fun.

I particularly loved the painting of a guy falling down the stairs headfirst, drawn in black lines on a yellow background. The guy looks so happy.


What other works did you particularly like?

'Silence = Death' because of the contextual meaning. And the long fresco, which hurt my eyes at first because it’s so big and so much to take in. Haring’s style sucks you in, your eyes follow the lines and get stuck in the maze. I like to experience that. It reflects his plea for equality. All his lines are the same in the grid. All figures are of equal value. He draws (kind of) human beings, yet they are as important as the decorations around and inside them.

What’s your opinion on the exhibition?

There’s some irony in going to see Haring, a street artist, in a museum, but on the other hand, we wouldn’t have been able to see all these works together if it weren’t. It was well done, apart from the club they tried to build to mirror exhibitions Haring held – it wasn’t really a club (Laughs). Keith Haring has become mainstream. It’s funny how something that started in the underground and was so close to the scene, to the gay population in NYC, has somehow become a kind of relic. 


You could criticize that, too. He’s sort of becoming a token, the gay hero everyone applauds while many are still discriminated.

I don’t think he saw himself as a hero. If people want to make a hero out of him, that’s on them. I don’t believe in heroes or in the concept of genius, of one person who saves all. The only thing you can try to do is tell people to chill and like each other, right? And that’s something Haring did, actively.


Members have free access to the Keith Haring exhibition at Bozar from 6 till 21 July.
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