Javier Calleja, who was born in Malaga in 1971, has become one of the most internationally-renowned Spanish artists, a creator whose works are so popular that he can't keep up with demand.
He is now so famous in Asia that in Tokyo and Hong Kong, where he has held several exhibitions in recent years, people stop him in the street and ask for his autograph.
His works are used by numerous brands, from textile firms (Vans, Mira Mikati) to vehicles (Rolls-Royce), and many want to collaborate with him on exclusive designs which will become small works of art in themselves.
Just over a year ago Javier Calleja was asked what he would need for an exhibition in Malaga, his hometown, where his works have not been on display since he became internationally famous, and his reply was precise: “Some rooms like the ones in the Episcopal Palace,” he said. The person asking the question was Sergio Corral, CEO of Fundación Unicaja, the institution which has transformed that impressive Baroque building into a cultural centre. And thanks to that meeting it is now housing Mr Günter, The Cat Show, Calleja's most ambitious exhibition so far.
The numbers are quite startling: there are 209 works on display, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and exclusive editions of his art toys from 20 different collections in seven European and Asian countries, where his work is a phenomenal success. Altogether 95 people and 17 companies have been involved in setting up this exhibition, which is curated by Alicia Gutiérrez Mármol (his partner and studio manager) and Shinji Nanzuka, the representative of his work in Asia. And 260 guests from all over the world, including prestigious gallery owners and collectors, came to Malaga for the inauguration.
Javier Calleja still finds it hard to take all this in. “We have worked so hard in the past seven years that I hadn't had time to stop and think about where we are and how far we have come. But now, I feel so proud” he said.
In the middle of the 18th century cloister, an enormous cat with huge shining eyes welcomes visitors. The combination of wildly contemporary art with one of the emblems of the Malaga of the past makes this exhibition particularly powerful. Mr. Günter is the latest character to emerge from this artist's imagination, and the master of ceremonies of this tour through the last seven years of Calleja's work, when he began to explore the possibilities of these childlike characters and free himself from limited spaces. He moved his studio into a large warehouse unit on an industrial estate and, suddenly, size became no object.
On the second floor is the painting that marked the beginning of the change, his first child's face, 26x19 centimetres in size (No Title, 2015). A few metres away is his most recent work, the biggest canvas he has ever painted, measuring 2.3 x 1.95 metres plus its immense frame.
It is one of six paintings created especially for the Malaga exhibition (and already sold), where the characters gain a body and a world around them. Works which also reflect one of Javier Calleja's main concerns, environmental sustainability. In a picture called The Future is Now! a child is holding a delicate flower. 'You're on earth. There's no cure for that', reads another piece in which green shoots appear. “The words make us think, the gestures make us feel and the images make us imagine,” Calleja explained.
He portrays the children at that moment when they have just stopped crying and started to smile, with damp eyes and an expression between sweet and mischievous. “We are all little heroes, we have all been there. You learn about life from smiles and tears,” he said.
Some years ago, these characters decided to come out of their frames and take on three dimensions. There are 25 sculptures in this display, some of them already emblematic of Calleja's career: from the first one he created for Tokyo in fibreglass and glass (Pencil Boy, 2018, accompanied by a sketchbook with more than 80 drawings) to his famous reworking of Mickey Mouse in aluminium for Disney Asia. The world's most famous mouse occupies an entire room to himself, together with some of the preparatory works for the design.
Calleja has also launched a special small-sized open edition of some of his pieces, which are on sale in the shop on the ground floor along with tee-shirts, bags, cups, coat hangers and more.
Mr Günter, The Cat Show, has brought Javier Calleja home to Malaga. And he has certainly returned in style.