Commentary

How Aspirational: Laura Callaghan’s Portraits of the Modern Woman

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“Cheat, Flay, Shove: How to Get Ahead and Live Your Best Life,” says the cover of a book held by a twenty-something year-old redhead woman drawn and painted by London-based illustrator Laura Callaghan.

For millennial women, the portrait’s representation of wellness is a strange and familiar contradiction, like the pleasing aesthetics of an unemployed adult’s themed Instagram feed, or the women’s department in Urban Outfitters that sells both kitschy ashtrays and detoxifying facial cleanser. In Callaghan’s 2016 exhibition, Aspirational, the Irish artist demonstrates that a girl’s modern life is not for living well, but for consuming plenty by conviction that doing so will bring what everybody in this age seems to desire: palpable and advertisable happiness and health. The details of “Cheat, Flay, Shove,” down to the framing of the Whole Foods Market take-out box behind the bendy woman and the sugary pitcher of Kool-Aid, argue that a cheap, frown-inducing reality — a woman self-medicating with trashy literature, cigarettes, and spilled lemonade — is figuratively closer than an attractive lifestyle of ten-dollar avocados and organic quinoa.

Other images for Aspirational symbolize equally weird and interpretative realities of consumption’s role in quasi-wellness. In one hand-drawn graphic, four women are getting intimate with plants in the nursery of a home-improvement store, and the entire scene hilariously mirrors the digital hipness of houseplants and women’s questionable fixation on them. Callaghan’s depiction of a woman in her office cubicle, grimacing and wearing a pair of purple trousers decorated with handcuffs, resonates with most twenty and thirty-something year old women feeling forever trapped at the bottoms of their careers, suffering from student debt and an earlier, conscious decision to grab a nauseatingly dry salad for lunch.

What’s most exceptional about Callaghan’s work is that unlike the humdrum of reality and the mass appeal of a contrived lifestyle, her critique of a millennial woman’s everyday movements is colorfully honest enough to convince one to regard the aspirational, female life as quite mesmerizing— especially if they’re not experiencing it. Perhaps it’s the way she illustrates the surface of femininity that allures spectators who consider a woman’s existence to be one of simplicity. Girls in party attire queue for spiked fruit punch, others sit poolside or in their bathtub with a glass of wine. There’s no denying that Callaghan’s art is no portrayal of physical exhaustion, the type of tiredness legitimately acknowledged by society.

And yet, it doesn’t have to be. Aspirational and its rainbow of scowling ladies are, instead, a symbol of women’s mental distress in a modern world, a dissatisfying environment that guilts the female population into accepting the easily obtainable  — hollow employment, irritating relationships, miracle creams and superfruits.


All images are from Laura Callaghan’s series, Aspirational, 2016. For more information about the artist, visit her website.

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