The Center of International Contemporary Art (CICA) Vancouver hosts a solo exhibition by Spanish artist Javier Calleja. “MR. GÜNTER, THE CAT SHOW” is open from October 6 to November 6. On tour from Parco Museum in Tokyo, the show features the artists’ signature, wide-eyed figures in both paintings and sculpture.
The exhibit takes up the entirety of both floors of the CICA gallery space in Gastown. Calleja’s cat, Mr. Günter, acts as a sort of host. A larger-than-life sculpture of Mr. Günter positioned near the gallery doors greets visitors upon arrival. Smaller figures of the cat stretching, sitting on the edges of picture frames, and strolling between sculptures guide guests through the whimsical installation.
A self-professed admirer of artists like René Magritte, Yoshimoto Nara, and Chris Johansson, Calleja has forged his own surreal style. It’s hard to resist the playfulness of the installation. Bright, almost florescent, colours and large-scale sculptures suggest a children’s playroom come to life. There is an emphasis on collaboration, making, and building. One wall of the gallery has been transformed into a work/play space, featuring enlarged pencils and scribbles on the walls.
Though the most striking feature of Calleja’s figures are their wide eyes, it’s the small details that make his work so engaging and life-like. Each is unique. For example, a tower of five cartoonish heads of various sizes includes one with a half-smile, revealing buck teeth. Another 3-dimensional figure holding a coloured pencil is, amusingly, only wearing one sandal (its discarded mate rests on the floor nearby).
The portraits all have a slightly soft, almost fuzzy, quality that resembles pencil crayon drawings. The style is another nod to childhood and the tools we use to make art as kids. To me, it also evokes the obfuscation of memory, the way details of our childhoods blur as we age.
It isn’t always cheerful, either. Calleja’s work also hints at the darker moments of childhood — though almost always with a cheeky, ironic twist. One of the most memorable works in the show is an all-black sculpture of a child reaching for a sign, also in dark grey and black, that reads “do not touch”. The colours, and positioning of the figure in an isolated corner of the gallery with black walls, suggest that childhood can also be a time tinged with loneliness and sadness.
As visitors move through the installation, they travel through a space of imagination and play. Calleja draws a parallel between making art, and the sort of creative exploration that we embrace as children.
Many people abandon the freedom of expression that play offers as they grow into adulthood. Too often, we forget the joy and humour that come with taking risks and embracing failure. “MR. GÜNTER, THE CAT SHOW” is a surreal reminder that we should approach the process of making art, and living in general, with wide-open eyes and childlike curiosity.
“MR. GÜNTER, THE CAT SHOW” is open October 6 – November 6 at CICA Vancouver.