Sign of the times

Design Week: Talk me through the concept of your exhibition The Symbols Won’t Save Us?
Ryan Callanan: The concept of the show is an exploration of how each and everyone one of us relates to symbols – What do they mean to us? Do they evoke an emotion, a memory, a thought or a feeling? How do we respond to them? We are surrounded by branding and a constant barrage of information, but why is it that I remember symbols, logos, and signs but not phone numbers?

Even when visualised mentally though, they are a series of shapes, for example the ’X’ on an orange background that you find on many chemical bottles reminds me of a kiss from a card or text message, rather than it’s intended meaning of as ’harmful’ warning. Is the context important or can they mean both?

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DW: How does your work play with the expected meaning of symbols?
Callanan: My work for this show aims to celebrate my favourite symbols by removing them from their original context and reworking them in materials that they might not be normally associated with. In doing so I explore whether their meanings can change, and whether a beauty can be found in the symbols in this unfamiliar environment or aesthetic? In doing so I hope people will re-asses how they look at these symbol in the future.

DW: What inspired the name?
Callanan: It comes from the materialistic world that I grew up in, the thirst for certain brands and what logos mean to me. I am not a religious person and I find it strange some people wear crosses, at the same time I have an extensive collection of a certain ’swoosh’ trainer brand that has fascinated me for years.

DW: Does your work as RYCA and as a commercial sign writer and designer overlap? And if so, how do they feed into each other?
Callanan: I think that working in the traditional sense as a full-time sign maker and designer has helped me optimise my art. I learned to screenprint by making signs, I had to unlearn a quite a bit in order to make art editions by staying after hours to practice. In my ‘day job’ I have built up a vast range of practical skills that I use in almost every single piece of art I make. I started designing and fabricating signs in 2003 and did not release my first RYCA artwork until late 2006, so it took me three years to become disciplined with deadlines and standards of craftsmanship before I felt I could begin to seriously explore ideas for my own art.

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DW: How does your background in sign manufacture and computer numerically controlled engineering influence your work?
Callanan: It has been a massive influence on the aesthetic I am now focusing on, as these recent works incorporate high gloss paint and precious leaf finishes and industrial manufacturing, to name but a few elements. I am mostly a self-taught CNC engineer in that I had basic training in the operations of the machine but everything I now programme (such as 3D concave surfacing) is down to what I have learnt from hours of trial and error and some very expensive mistakes.

Andy Warhol is my favourite artist, his imagery, techniques and materials are inspirational to my work. What Warhol did for silkscreen printing is what I hope to do with CNC engineering. The process is key.

The Symbols Won’t Save Us, New Works By Ryan Callanan runs at Ink_d Gallery, 96 North Road, Brighton, BN1 6YE From 17 June-10 July.

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