Javier Calleja - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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  •  “Sometimes, you are painting, and your mind, your emotions, are all in the painting. This is the moment when you can find something new. It’s an emotional moment.”
    — Javier Calleja


    Hailing from Málaga, Spain, Javier Calleja captivates the hearts and souls of millions across the globe with his adorable, wide-eyed characters. Round, rosy cheeks and saccharine-sweet stares populate the artist’s celebrated oeuvre, a tribute to childhood wonderment that evokes nostalgia for simpler days. Since the beginning of his career in the 1990s, Calleja has been constantly developing and refining his artistic signature. In 2016, his current trademark came to life, characterised by a cast of roly-poly children with exaggerated eyes, manifested in velvety pastel shades. Playing into the nostalgic Kawaii aesthetic pioneered in the art world by celebrity artists like Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami, it comes as no surprise that Calleja’s repertoire has amassed an enormous following, garnering particular attention in the Asian market.


    The present work, 1971, is meant to be a self-portrait, doubling as a tongue-in-cheek parody of a mugshot, and the title is a nod to Calleja’s year of birth. A boy with a head of fluffy chocolate hair stands against a sandy wash, dressed in a numbered, orange shirt reminiscent of a prison jumpsuit. Yet a ruby blush adorns his cherubic cheeks, and his shiny, emerald eyes blink at us earnestly — the boy more of an endearing toddler than a criminal as the portrait suggests. The faint, dark rings under his eyes convey tiredness at best, ineffective in dissuading the viewers of his harmless, delightful nature. Executed in 2017, 1971 is an early and captivating example of Calleja’s visual aesthetic.


    Installation view of the current work at Hi, 13 May – 10 June 2017, AISHONANZUKA, Hong Kong. Courtesy AISHONANZUKA.

    Windows to the Soul


    “I think there is something really important in their eyes, and it’s with only two drops, white colour, and the shadows. So you get the sensation of real.”
    — Javier Calleja


    Calleja boys are instantly recognisable for their watery, marble-like eyes that have transfixed and enamoured the art world since their debut in 2017. Their pooling gazes have become synonymous with Calleja’s artistic trademark, enhanced in contrast by the simpler elements that frame them. Meant to evoke the delicate sensation that merges sadness and relief, Calleja was compelled to visualize the tender moment when a child stops crying, about to break into a smile once again. Regarding this source of inspiration, the artist muses: ‘That is the moment I paint — when experiencing something bad and you just had a breakthrough. I think when a child is crying and then stops to cry — they’re a hero. Because he or she decided to overcome the pain.’ i



    A Delightful Optimism


    A former apprentice of Yoshitomo Nara, Calleja’s work is frequently compared to that of the renowned Japanese artist. Indeed, both share conceptual and aesthetic similarities, but Calleja’s oeuvre distinguishes itself with its playful optimism and endearing innocence. Both Nara and Calleja explore themes of childhood in their work, however, Nara is known for imbuing his creations with pervading darkness and cynicism. His protagonists are often depicted as angry or injured, regarding the viewers with rude sneers and disdainful, half-lidded stares unbefitting of an adorable little girl. Nara’s children are solitary and vulnerable in a universe that simmers with undercurrents of danger and violence— a sinister expression of the artist’s lonely childhood.


    In contrast, Calleja chooses simplicity over complexity, celebrating the more light-hearted aspect of growing up. His macrocephalic children don pleasant smiles and button noses, cheeks tinted with a rosy, velvety blush. Most striking of all are their wide eyes, glistening with joy and curiosity, yet to be burdened with the stress and preoccupations of the adult world. Though the artist’s body of work has an undeniable satirical edge to it, his pieces come across as cheeky and comical, diverging from the snarky, cynical humour that permeates his mentor’s oeuvre.


    Another connection can be made to contemporary Spanish artists such as Edgar Plans and Rafa Macarrón, whose works employ similar elements of expression to Calleja. These artists are highly influenced by nostalgic reveries and childhood reminisces, evoking sentimentality with a cast of childlike figures and cartoonish creatures. Their comparable approaches and shared aesthetic illustrate a current trend of the Spanish New Wave in the contemporary art scene.


    Lot 48, Edgar Plans, Night Creatures, 2020 (Detail)
    Phillips Hong Kong Evening Sale, 22 June 2022
    Estimate HKD1,200,000 - 1,800,000


    In our time of chaos, unrest, and uncertainty, Calleja’s aesthetic is a breath of fresh air, spreading much-needed warmth and delight through his beloved big-eyed children, brimming with youthful exuberance and infectious positivity. Refusing to overcomplicate and overanalyse his artistic themes, the artist believes in the values of simplicity and childlike naivety that his works carry, stating: ‘Every character is like my son. At the end of my life, I might have thousands of children.’ ii Indeed, Calleja’s affection towards his protagonists evidently translates onto his canvases, reminding viewers of the more innocent motivators behind the making of art: adoration and posterity.



    Collector’s Digest


    One of the biggest names in contemporary art today, Calleja’s works have been widely exhibited at numerous prestigious galleries and institutions worldwide, including solo exhibitions at Almine Rech in Shanghai (2021), Bill Brady in Miami (2020), and AISHONANZUKA in Hong Kong (2019, 2017), among many others. 2022 sees an incredible line-up for the artist, most notable being the upcoming solo shows with Almine Rech in Paris (2 June - 25 June 2022) , PARCO Museum in Tokyo (30 June - 18 July 2022), and with Almine Rech in Shanghai (8 July – 6 August 2022).


    Calleja set his personal auction record with Phillips Hong Kong in 2021 when his multi-part installation, 30 Works: Untitled sold for HK$12,108,000. It is an early example of the artist’s signature aesthetic, having been created in 2017— the year he first debuted his beloved big-eyed children at AISHONANZUKA in Hong Kong. Collectors have been clamouring for Calleja’s work ever since, and demand, particularly in Asia, is at an all-time high as his popularity continues to skyrocket.



    Javier Calleja, 30 Works: Untitled, 2017
    Sold by Phillips Hong Kong, 30 November 2021, for HK$12,108,000 (Premium)


    Javier Calleja, quoted in Sasha Bogojev, ‘Javier Calleja: Finding That Magic Moment’, Juxtapoz, 2019, online

    ii Javier Calleja, quoted on Avant Arte, online

    • Provenance

      AISHONANZUKA, Hong Kong
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Hong Kong, AISHONANZUKA, Hi, 13 May - 10 June 2017

    • Artist Biography

      Javier Calleja

      Javier Calleja (b. 1971) is a contemporary Spanish artist living and working in
      Malaga, Spain. Calleja is most known for his figurative style of cartoonish, doe-eyed
      characters with exaggerated features. His style is influenced by the toys and comics
      from his 70s and 80s upbringing. Calleja’s characters are often accompanied by text
      that contrasts the innocent and adolescent looking facial expressions of the
      characters represented in the compositions. Calleja works in painting, sculpture,
      and works on paper.

      Calleja holds a BFA from Granada University in Spain. His works have been exhibited worldwide and he is currently represented by Almine Rech.

      View More Works



signed, titled and dated '"1971" 2017 Javier Calleja' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
100.1 x 80 cm. (39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2017.

Full Cataloguing

HK$3,500,000 - 5,500,000 

Sold for HK$4,032,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022