Javier Calleja - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle Hong Kong Thursday, December 1, 2022 | Phillips

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  • “I think that my style is more connected with my real beginnings, my childhood, and me and I didn’t find it, and I’m still waiting for it to change. I’m looking to communicate emotions. The feeling of love, magic, or pain, I want to show that second when you feel those emotions. [...] I like people to experience the sensation of experiencing the moment of magic. Being lost, confused, heart beating stronger, I love that effect.”
    — Javier Calleja

    Summoning feelings of childhood innocence and curiosity, Once in Life is a compelling rendition of Spanish artist Javier Calleja’s instantly relatable and light-hearted imagery. First unveiled in Tokyo at NANZUKA Gallery during their 2018 exhibition titled Do Not Touch, the endearing canvas depicts a wide-eyed, macrocephalic child reaching out to the viewer with his genuine sense of sincerity and hope. 



    The present work exhibited at Tokyo, NANZUKA, Do Not Touch, 24 November – 22 December 2018
    Image: Courtesy of Nanzuka Underground, Artwork: © Javier Calleja


    Born and based in the Spanish port city of Málaga, the birthplace of fellow Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, Calleja ’s earliest influences of his art were childhood comics, cartoons, and toys. Ranging from tiny drawings to large-scale installations, his impressive body of works is the result of his long-term experimentation across a wide range of techniques and mediums. Recognised for his paintings of children that are visually endearing, and straightforward in its messaging, Calleja has garnered strong international following over the past few years for his signature sculptures, paintings and drawings combining whimsy with satirical and philosophical flair.



    Keep It Simple 


    Having difficulty relating to the famous artists in the 1990s who were highly conceptual about the process and meaning behind each work, Calleja had elaborated: ‘there is something behind my work, but I don’t like to explain it. I prefer that the viewers are the ones to finish that.’i Going along with his style of selective explanation, Calleja also favours simple subjects, as he explains, ‘I like simple things. Simple, but not easy. I always say that I like to find a magic moment.’ One aspect to this magic moment refers to the brief period between when a viewer first sees a Calleja’s work and goes ‘Wow.’, and before their brain starts to look for a logical explanation for the meaning of the work.ii



    Javier Calleja, No Step Back, 2019
     Sold by Phillips, Hong Kong, 7 June 2021 for HKD6,542,000 (Premium)
    Artwork: © Javier Calleja


    For Calleja, the emphasis of the figure is on those big, colourful eyes. Everything else such as the background and the character’s T-shirt is pared down to the bare minimum with pure colours, in juxtaposition with the sometimes mischievous, sometimes innocent looks in those glassy, three-dimensional ‘windows of the soul’. Calleja paints from his own experience and understanding as a viewer, ‘when your eyes notice the eyes in the painting, the brain feels like the whole image is real. They are very important to people. So your brain is looking at something real but your eyes are looking at something not real, and I think there is some kind of magic in such a moment.’iii



    Not That Simple

    “They have, you know, the eyes, puppy eyes. But it's with red. And the nose is also red. And the eyes are really shiny, watery. So these guys are happy because they just stopped crying. Do you know this moment when you are crying or a child is crying, but then start to smile again?”
    — Javier Calleja


    Calleja’s simple subject matter lends itself to being the element of surprise for delivering profound messages contained in clichés that have been overlooked. The subject of endearment in the present work, is the little blond-haired character making direct eye contact with the viewer with his immensely bright and gradient green eyes, set off by an earth-toned backdrop. With a tender smile on his face, the boy’s rosy lips and orange-tinted nose indicates a cry that may have taken place a moment ago. With hands slightly put back, he emanates a sense of excited anticipation, allowing more attention to land on the slogan that sits his periwinkle t-shirt : ‘Once in Life’. 

    ‘Once in Life’ coincides with the idea of ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’「一期一會」in Japanese culture, referring to once-in-a-lifetime moments and treasuring the unrepeatable nature of each encounter, cueing the famous saying by the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: ‘change is the only constant in life.’ Everything changes in the ephemeral phenomenon we call human life, and this sense of instability and unknown inspires us to ‘carpe diem’ -- seize the day. Full of childlike sincerity and hope, our endearing protagonist’s adorable face belies the profound meaning of the slogan. 



    All About That Connection 


    Depictions of upbeat, mischievous children lie at the core of Calleja’s practice. As a recurring subject-matter throughout art history, children portraiture is an imagery that never gets old, for it is a symbolic motif for going back to the basics with the carefree joy and the unbound curiosity that we all share as little ones. Historically, children’s portraits are done for the royals, and the children of the rich and the powerful, seen in works by Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez. As time went on, artists such as Renoir and Picasso brought their own styles into the exploration of this subject. As a result of their artistic investigation and the social climates of the time they lived in, the subject of depiction has become more and more relatable to the common viewer, with conspicuously less telling of the protagonist imbued in the attributes and surroundings, and much more focused on the behaviour and emotions of the actual person. This is well demonstrated through Calleja’s individualised style in Once in Life.

  • Art speaks for the zeitgeist of its time, and Calleja’s oeuvre is part of the movement that has been pushing for the democracy of art connoisseurship — making the enjoyment of art more laid-back and accessible to all. Having the capacity of being universally understood and admired, Calleja’s work empowers the viewer as it requires no prerequisite art historical background, and thus allows for expanded possibilities for interpretations. The simple imagery serves as the vehicle to interact and communicate, complemented by humorous and thought-provoking slogans, which express a global sentiment of desiring childhood innocence and simplicity in a rather intricate and fast-paced society.



    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 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).


    The artist’s most recent solo show, Javier Calleja: MR. GÜNTER, THE CAT SHOW, had just ended at the Centre of International Contemporary Art, Vancouver, lasting from 6 October to 6 November, 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 HKD12,108,000 (Premium)

    i Javier Calleja, quoted in Sasha Bogojev, ‘Javier Calleja: Finding That Magic Moment’, Juxtapoz, 2019, online
    ii ibid.
    iii ibid.

    • Provenance

      NANZUKA, Tokyo
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2018

    • Exhibited

      NANZUKA, Tokyo, "Do Not Touch", 24 November - 22 December 2018

    • 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


Once in Life

signed, titled and dated '2018 Javier Calleja "ONCE IN LiFE"' on the overlap
acrylic on canvas
195.5 x 162.8 cm. (76 7/8 x 64 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,700,000 - 3,800,000 

Sold for HK$4,410,000

Contact Specialist

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

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale in association with Yongle

Hong Kong Auction 1 December 2022