Illustrator Laura Callaghan is showcasing her tongue in cheek hyper-detailed girls in new exhibition, Aspirational, starting Thursday at KK Outlet.
Laura Callaghan is focusing on the popularity of inspirational quotes on social media platforms through her art medium of illustration. The girls are complex creatures, often looking unimpressed with life, and to be honest aren’t we all? In a world where girls are torn between being told that they can do what ever they want and yet still being compared against impossible beauty standards, it’s no wonder girls are giving the world the side eye.
Callaghan is keen to explore these contradictions and puts her girls in relatable scenarios, which will leave you slightly uneasy. Her show is an intricate collection of fresh new watercolour paintings, printed textiles and screen prints, which are much more inspiring than your Instagram feed packed full of illogical quotes. They’re also about a thousand times more relatable to gal-life. Quote after quote of things like “Be with someone who looks at you every single day like they’ve won the lottery” and “Every job is a self portrait of the person who does it, autograph your job with excellence” eventually starts to feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth when you’re bored at your uninspiring job, drinking an overpriced dishwater latte.
Wonderland caught up with the woman herself, who talked us through some of the themes of Aspiration, the flaws and failings of social media and the relationship between millennials and capitalism. The exhibition runs from 2nd June – 2nd July 2016 at KK Outlet and it is not something you’re going to want to miss.
Explain the inspiration behind your ‘Aspirational’ show.
The pieces are a tongue in cheek homage to the prevalence of inspirational quotes on social media. They are pretty inescapable at the moment, copy and paste philosophies and borrowed insights – but when big ‘profound’ phrases, which are intended to motivate and inspire are applied to real life situations they quickly lose all meaning. They’ve now been co-opted by brands to try engage with their customers on a human level, and bizarrely it seems to work – these are the posts with the most likes, the most ‘ME!’ comments underneath. It’s really interesting that they’ve gained so much momentum, though I read a article which suggested people are drawn to positive affirmations in times of hardship and recession, like how readers gravitated towards Superman in the 1930s so perhaps that plays a part in it and I’m just a cynical git. Ahem – ‘No one ever injured their eyesight by looking on the bright side.’
How did you develop your hyper-detailed, technicolor aesthetic?
I started working the way I work now about four years ago. I was doing a weekly fashion illustration for a Sunday magazine where I just had to draw straight catwalk looks and found the more detailed and patterned and colourful a garment was the more I enjoyed painting it. But traditional fashion illustration is super restrictive, it’s solely about the clothing and not so much the mood and atmosphere, so I started working on series of paintings in my spare time where I applied the elements of fashion illustration I enjoyed but took a more narrative approach, so placing the characters in an environment and filling up the pieces with details that would create a richer story I suppose. And it stuck!
Tell us about the materials you work with and why.
For my personal pieces I use watercolour and pen. I like that I can build up a richness of texture and get some really fine detail with smaller brushes. I think there’s a more human quality to the watercolour work too, you can see how a pattern was created, the hint of some of the initial pencil work, any mistakes I’ve tried to cover up…it takes a LONG time to complete a painting though, I’d say each of the pieces for this show probably took an average of 40-50 hours from start to finish. Obviously for commissioned work time is a factor so I ink those illustrations by hand and then colour digitally. Using photoshop also gives me flexibility to make client changes relatively easily – there’s no undo button for painted work so you’re kind of stuck with what you get.
Your work pokes fun of like-driven social media, whilst being widely disseminated and ‘liked’ on social media itself. Is this an effort to subvert the medium from within, or just a result of the ubiquity of social media – or something different?
I’m completely reliant on social media as a means to promote my work and I use it constantly so there is a level of self-awareness to the work because yeah, I’m part of it! But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognise it’s flaws and failings, and that’s what I’m trying to do with this series.
As for subverting it from within, I don’t know…it’s such an organic and evolving thing I don’t think anyone has that much control over how what they post is perceived. One of the pieces I made for the show is about fair weather spirituality and the idea of buying enlightenment – so there’s a figure in a yoga pose surrounded by conflicting religious, spiritual and cult artefacts. But I’ve since seen it being used by yoga instagram pages with ‘inspirational’ captions completely unironically. You can’t control how people see things, and I like that!
You brilliantly parody much Instagrammed brands – Deth/Pret, Droll Prudes/Whole Foods… How do you perceive the relationship between millennials and capitalism?
That is a big question! I mean, we’re living in a time where multi million pound companies can get away with tax avoidance and zero hour contracts are perfectly legal, millennials are probably the ones most affected so I think it’s only natural that there’s a distrust of capitalism and rightly so. But at the same time where is the alternative? It permeates every aspect of our lives, so much is predicated on having and making money. We’re constantly being told by the current government if you work hard enough you’ll reap the rewards, but that has been shown to be emphatically untrue. The idea that capitalism levels the playing field and enables social mobility is hard to believe when you look at who is in power. So I’d say the relationship is….bleak?
How do you negotiate your distrust of branding with the pressure to become, as an artist with a public profile, a brand yourself?
As far as my own ‘brand’ goes….it’s not really something I think about or plan. I don’t make a conscious effort to portray my work in a particular way and really don’t have that much control over it. I just want to put it out there and say as little as possible about it!
I mean the cynicism about branding can only go so far, I have to make a living so inevitably going to have to work with brands. It’s just a case of being aware of who you’re working with. At the moment brands are really eager to be your friend, it’s become the done thing for a brand to cultivate some kind of back story or heritage, adverts for cars and banks try to forge an absurd emotional connection with customers, it’s all very cynical and disingenuous. But there’s no escape, a lot of the brands I take the piss out of are ones I use myself, I too have contemplated what I’m doing with my life over a Pret souper tomato soup.
You frequently post your older work online (with hashtags like #beforeicoulddrawhands) – do you think it’s important to reveal your development as an artist?
Yeah I think it is. Particularly considering a lot of the people following my work are considering illustration as a career or are currently in University. When I’m giving presentations and talks I always include a lot of very old and very bad work, it’s taken me years to get to the point I’m at now with my illustration and it’s still a process, I can look back on work from last year and cringe at the errors. It’s important to be realistic with students, it does take a long time to get established. No one really laid out the timescales for us when we were in University, a lot of students think you have to have your style and skills honed before graduating but that’s really not the case. It’s a very small number of graduates who get hired straight off the bat, it can take years to develop your style and abilities and that’s ok!
What inspired that fantastically unimpressed facial expression your women have?
Haha, eh…life? I’m a fan of the side eye, the eyes are the window to your internal ‘fuck you’
You focus on the absurd pressures of aspirational social media feeds; what do you think about the other, meme-driven side of the scale, where there’s a trend towards self-deprecation and an ‘IDGAF’ attitude? Do you think this puts women in an impossible bind?
I’m not sure I’d put memes in the same category really, there’s nothing insidious or underhand about them, they’re more absurdist.
Your ‘Aspirational’ exhibition includes printed textiles – is this an avenue you’ll pursue further in the future? Would you consider entering into fashion design, or collaborating with a designer?
Yeah I’d love to, I really enjoyed it! I’m no fashion designer though, that requires a completely different skill set from the one I have so it would be great to do a collaboration. The pieces I made for the show are scarves so they function almost like a wall hanging or large scale illustration – it would be interesting to see how those drawings worked on a garment once the fabric had been cut and sewn.
Words: Lizzie Griffin and Emily Dixon