Rachel Kevern discusses the work of Irish illustrator Laura Callaghan, with a focus on her new mural in Liverpool
It’s a big moment for Laura Callaghan. Based in south London, the young Irish illustrator uses a mixture of watercolour, Indian ink and isograph pen to create hyper-detailed representations of women and non-binary people in various states of work, rest and play. After hearing about Laura Callaghan in a Refinery29 article back in 2016, I immediately headed over to Instagram to see what her work was all about and have been an enthusiastic follower ever since. Her incredibly intricate designs, heightened attention to detail, playful patterns and eye-grabbing use of colour make for a visual feast which begs to be savoured and enjoyed.
Since graduating from Kingston University in 2010, Callaghan has appeared in a number of exciting exhibitions around the UK and has received commissions from brands including The Body Shop, The Guardian, V&A, Urban Decay, Refinery29 and the Tate. She had her first solo show at KK Outlet in London in June 2016 and last month her work appeared as part of Pictoplasma in Berlin, often considered to be the world’s leading platform for contemporary character design and art. Now, her detailed and playful work comes to Liverpool in the form of a major installation at FACT (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), the UK’s leading organisation for the support and exhibition of film, art and new media.
Callaghan’s formidable figures are placed in scenarios to which many of us can relate. Whether they are breastfeeding a baby while trying to take a business call or sprawling on a bed eating Hawaiian pizza and flicking through a magazine, her characters are depicted in the vibrant array of colours which is a major aspect of her playful yet vaguely confrontational style. Their expressions are serious and non-smiling, and they look wonderfully unimpressed.
In a recent interview with Wonderland Magazine, Callaghan explains that she is “a fan of the side eye; the eyes are the window to your internal ‘fuck you’”. Her women stare out from beneath Frida Kahlo-esque eyebrows, often in some state of undress, unabashedly owning the vivid world which they inhabit. Callaghan says that she started her current method of working after moving away from a background in fashion illustration:
I was doing a weekly fashion illustration for a Sunday magazine where I just had to draw straight catwalk looks, and [I] 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.
Beginning to work on a series of paintings in her spare time, she combined her favourite aspects of fashion illustration and added a stronger narrative element. This style won her a huge social media following and led to her first UK exhibitions.
Callaghan’s attention to detail is laudable, and she really knows her literature. Her compositions are often filled to overflowing with books, magazines and posters with a feminist message or a strong female protagonist. In one piece, Anna Karenina stares out from a book shelf while a copy of Diva magazine – a mainstream lesbian and bisexual publication – is flung carelessly on the bed. Details such as these create referential networks which connect the women in her work to the powerful female characters which inhabit the worlds of their reading material.
Elsewhere, in a collection of illustrations entitled ‘Panophobia’, the titles of popular publications on a newsstand are playfully yet strikingly distorted. ‘VOGUE’ becomes ‘VAGUE’, ‘OK!’ becomes ‘OK?’ and ‘HELLO’ is simply ‘HELL’. In a world abounding with competing narratives surrounding femininity and how a woman should act, think, and feel, is it any wonder that Callaghan’s characters look unimpressed?
Despite critics now hailing her as a prominent feminist artist, Callaghan didn’t start out intending to only draw female characters. This was a consequence of the narrative nature of her work; a lot of the issues and experiences that she explores are deeply personal, so she was drawn to portray these from a woman’s perspective.
Although her women may appear imposing, Callaghan also frequently captures a distinct sense of vulnerability and unease. The figures in her illustrations remind us that it is possible to be both vulnerable and strong – they are not mutually exclusive characteristics.
She is also unafraid of exploring and criticising the less comfortable truths of modern life, from harmful messages in the media to climate change, gender stereotypes and capitalism. Callaghan’s work manages to be both visually pretty and deeply political. With Aspirational, her first solo show, the illustrator set out to call out the flaws and failings of social media. She particularly focused on the prevalence of supposedly motivational quotes bouncing around online.
Speaking with Wonderland in 2016, she explained that such quotes “are pretty inescapable at the moment, copy and paste philosophies and borrowed insights – but when big ‘profound’ phrases intended to motivate and inspire are applied to real life situations, they quickly lose all meaning”.
Her work recognises the tendency for brands to co-opt such phrases to try to engage with their customers on a human level, capitalising on emotion and aspirations. Mottos such as ‘Every job is a self-portrait of the person who does it; autograph your job with excellence’, ‘Be with someone who looks at you every single day like they’ve won the lottery’, or ‘No one ever injured their eyesight by looking on the bright side’ look pretty on Instagram, but they can be painfully hollow back in the real world.
The new installation at FACT is Callaghan’s largest creation to date. The piece spans the entirety of a 10-metre wall at the front entrance, standing an impressive five metres high, and is unmissable on entering the building; it immediately commands the viewer’s full and undivided attention.
In an Instagram post about the mural, Callaghan writes that she wanted to consider “the themes of gender, representation and identity” that will be the focus of FACT’s 2019 programme. The FACT website describes the work as “part fashion illustration, part satire”, which “takes inspiration from the depth and symbolism of the multi-layered Mexican murals of the 1920s and the symbolism of Grayson Perry’s tapestries”.
The women in the composition are both fearless and unapologetic, and are deeply rooted in external feminist references. Regardless of age, ethnicity or body type, they are fully present and unashamed, and the ostensibly bright and beautiful nature of the work celebrates womanhood in all its different forms. Every object, scene and interaction in the mural acts as a reference to each of FACT’s 2019 programmes, and “highlights some of the key themes including identity, representation, gender, fairy tales, work and subculture”.
The programme opened at the start of this year with a major exhibition of artworks by female artists, including Ericka Beckman and Marianna Simnett, who (according to FACT) “both use technology and classic elements of fairy tale storytelling to explore images of the female body in modern day society”. Callaghan’s work perfectly complements and contributes to these explorations of gender identities, female archetypes and women’s bodies. Her large-scale creation is right at home at FACT, particularly during a year in which the programme focuses on art produced by female-identifying artists, and gender identities.
The mural will remain at FACT until March next year, so there’s plenty of time to get to Liverpool and admire Callaghan’s multifaceted and bold work.
All images used with kind permission of FACT, © Rob Battersby. Feature image shows a photograph of the mural in a white-painted room, with ‘LEARNING SPACE’ written on the left-hand wall. The mural shows a number of women in a pale pink room and is painted in a bright, two-dimensional, cartoonlike style. Both inset images are extracts from the mural.
First inset features a large female face wearing bright red lipstick in profile in the left, with her hand holding a golden key. Behind her, sitting at a dressing-table, another woman with long black hair looks in a hand-mirror. Second inset features a woman wearing a bright yellow top, holding up a notebook in her right hand. Her left hand rests on the head of a second woman, who is lying on the ground, facing out to the viewer. She wears bright red lipstick and a pale pink top. She’s looking up at the knee of the cropped-off woman to the right.