Apocalypse Chow: The culinary delights and dystopias of Laura Callaghan
For the Apocalypse Chow exhibition at Hen’s Teeth in Dublin, the illustrator has envisioned the end of the world – and the food that might accompany it.
The apocalypse is coming; fires are burning, debauchery is rife – and in Laura Callaghan’s world, we’re feasting. In her most recent series – Apocalypse Chow – the illustrator has envisioned the culinary delights that could complement the end of the world. Full of decadence and abundance, the exhibition at Dublin’s Hen’s Teeth is teeming with historical imagery and culinary references. Laura’s bold outfits drape even bolder characters; the works throughout are awash with bright colour. But, staying true to style, despite this kaleidoscopic finish, things aren’t as sweet as they may seem on the surface.
Apocalypse Chow is Laura’s first major body of personal work since before the pandemic, and for it she wanted to focus on her “second passion”, food. When not creating, Laura can often be found immersing herself in the culinary culture, creating elaborate dinners – hand making noodles and dumpling wrappers or baking bread – and reading and watching TV programmes about food. Inspired by such abundant history and cultural references, for Laura, food exists as a great “metaphorical tool” and where before Laura’s works have told a subject’s story through their clothing, in Apocalypse Chow the food they’re consuming provides the central narrative element.
Laura has never been an artist who leans toward easier, more (ahem) palatable topics. Instead, she’s always had a penchant for exploring the murkier, more sinister side of life – like her brilliant murderous Tinder date comic from way back in 2014. “I think I’ve always been a fan of darker things, work that has more of a pessimistic or satirical edge,” she says. “My work is rooted in reality, or the world we live in, and I think nowadays it’s hard not to be a little pessimistic.” The primary visual inspiration for the Apocalypse Chow came from historical representations of Doomsday, and the 15 signs that precede it – as often referenced in texts from the Middle Ages. “I wanted the paintings to reflect my own modern day signs of the apocalypse,” says Laura, “because a lot of what we’re experiencing right now does feel like the end of time.”
“Food is sustenance – it keeps us alive, and it’s about enjoyment too. But as humans we always have to push things a little bit too far.”Laura Callaghan
The piece that Laura views as the “distillation” of all of these ideas and references is the first painting she created for the exhibition, Bacchanal (The animals will feast…). Referencing the Bacchanalia, Roman festivals in which copious amounts of food and alcohol were consumed to shed inhibition, the painting depicts a riotous tabletop scene, overflowing with sinister subjects, questionable delicacies, and even a spot of cannibalism. Through the highly detailed piece, Laura wanted to show the human tendency for over-indulgence: “Food is sustenance and it keeps us alive, and it’s about enjoyment too,” she says. “But as humans we always have to push things a little bit too far.”
At the head of the table, a figure sits with a napkin over her head and a small bird about to enter her mouth. This replicates a (now banned) French ‘delicacy’ called Ortolan, Laura explains, in which an Ortolan bird is force fed, drowned in Armagnac, cooked and then eaten whole – bones and all. At the other end of the table lies a round of Casu Martzu cheese. A Sardinaian creation, the cheese is fermented to the point of decomposition, where it becomes infested with maggots which are scraped off before eating. With consumption of the cheese risking serious illness, the delicacy has been named by Guinness World Records as the world’s most dangerous cheese. For Laura, such culinary over-indulgence is still as present in today’s society – a fact the piece aims to highlight. She cites creations like the competitive over consumption of Man V. Food, a TV series that leaves a sour taste for Laura when considering the current cost of living crisis and the subsequent rising costs of food.
1 of 6
Laura Callaghan: Apocalypse Chow – Plate (Copyright © Laura Callaghan, 2023)
Not only featuring Laura’s paintings, the exhibition is rich with other mediums. Working from a “very open brief” from Rosie and Greg – the founders of Hen’s Teeth who first presented the collaboration in 2021 – Laura’s very first idea for the exhibition was in fact centred around the large red, white and black monochromatic banquet table that sits at the exhibition’s centre. Atop the table sits an array of handmade elements. A red and white tablecloth hand screen printed with Lauras’s figurative illustrations by Lily Bailie, a dramatic array of flowers, and fake cakes – made and decorated (Laura laughs) with polystyrene, wall filler and paint. Topping things off are a series of ceramic plates created by Laura, adorned with more scenes of revelry and consumption. Veering away from Laura’s fondness of colour, the figurative plates are finished in a striking black and white, both allowing Laura to focus closely on the images, as well as taking into account that food will add colour to the tableware.
The tactility of the show is something that stands out to Laura. With the financial pressures of being a creative and often completing highly specified client work, it’s not often a chance comes along to try something new. What’s more, having an exhibition means that people can see Laura’s paintings in person. With such attention to detail, graphic lines and consistency, Laura’s works (including the ones featured in Apocalypse Chow) are often mistaken for being digital, not her staples of fine pens and watercolour. “It seems to be more the norm now for illustrators’ work to be digital rather than to work in traditional media, and you can get such accurate paint-like effects doing stuff digitally now,” Laura says. “ So I think for people to see the paintings up close and in real life is really nice.”
1 of 6
Laura Callaghan: Apocalypse Chow (Copyright & Photography © Mark McGuinness, 2023)
Such dedication to analogue methods may not always be the easiest of choices – being time consuming and making client revisions “much harder” to amend – but for Laura, it’s what works. “I’m almost always more happy with the outcome,” she says. “I think that’s when my work is most me.” And it certainly pays off. Up close Laura’s works are something to behold – the array of colours, the quality of linemaking (how does she keep such a steady hand?), and the intuitive use of watercolour. In Laura’s sinister bathroom scene Don’t Perceive Me (All eyes turn…) – a commentary on social media and data capture – the tiles become the main character, the green wash of the watercolour expertly replicating the impression of the ceramic squares.
A harmonious collision of Laura’s passion for food, her nihilistic tendencies and a desire to try something new, Apocalypse Chow is a feast for the eyes.
Apocalypse Chow is now showing at Hen’s Teeth Dublin until 20 September. Originals, prints, plates and more are now available to purchase on the Hen’s Teeth website.
Laura Callaghan: Apocalypse Chow – Sweet Banner (Copyright © Laura Callaghan, 2023)
Laura Callaghan: Apocalypse Chow – Meat Banner (Copyright © Laura Callaghan, 2023)
Laura Callaghan: Vroom (The dead rise...) (Copyright © Laura Callaghan, 2023)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.