Joakim Ojanen has a rare talent for expressing honest human emotions in weird and wonderful ways. His tragicomic figures channel personal feelings, and trouble the boundaries between adult and child.
Ojanen’s creatures are surreal and deeply human at once. Each has a life of its own made up of droopy, worm-like expressions, bugged eyes, and odd, flappy growths. They are depicted across sculpture, painting and drawing in multiple scales from miniature ceramics to large canvases and life-size casts. A palette of pastel hues is occasionally punctured by bursts of bright colour and the rough, uneven textures of Ojanen’s sculptures are juxtaposed by their high-gloss finish. His works contribute to the eclectic international resurgence of ceramics in contemporary art from Grayson Perry to Yun Hee Lee, pulling traditional methods of clay and kiln into a current aesthetic context. Ojanen draws from DIY zine culture, as well as popular—but now outdated—cartoons such as Garfield and Futurama. This sense of play runs throughout Ojanen’s personifications, and wittily explores the peculiar nature of the human condition.
Ojanen’s work is incredibly personal, yet reassuringly universal. His process relies on a solitary relationship between the artist and his materials: in each pinch of clay, stroke of paint or grand swoop of charcoal, he infuses the works, consciously and subconsciously, with his personal feelings and experiences. Rough Day (Boy with Bag) (2017) is a 2.2 metre-tall, bronze cast sculpture of a young boy wearing shorts and an oversized cap, stooped over, holding a satchel. The work combines the dark, ominous colours and gangly limbs of a Giacometti with Ojanen’s trademark cartoonish figuration, and the all-too-familiar posture of a tired, defeated child. The unavoidably endearing character feels entirely alive and, like a comic or cartoon, suspends the viewers disbelief, enveloping them in the same reality as the boy. Thus, Rough Day becomes an indirect self-portrait, tying a thread between Ojanen’s personal experience and our own.
Ojanen complicates binary notions of adult as burdened and child as free. As the artist explains, his creatures “are not stuck in the same timeline as us where you [can only] be one age at a time.” Instead, by combining motifs such as duck beaks and Basset Hound ears reminiscent of a soft toy, with melancholic postures and expressions, the characters’ become eerily ageless. This underscores Ojanen’s practice with a dark humour that displays the complexities of growing up, the responsibilities of being an adult and, most importantly, the capacity to suffer that all humans have—regardless of age. As such, Ojanen brings out the inner child within us, challenging the viewer not only to recall our own experiences, but also to recall the experiences of others. A playful, odd and emotionally generous artist, Ojanen’s work is a reminder of the most powerful human trait: empathy.