Joakim Ojanen

The endearing, tragicomic figures of Swedish artist Joakim Ojanen express familiar emotions in peculiar ways.

Ojanen’s creatures are at once surreal and deeply human. Each one 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 with their high-gloss finish.

  • Solo show, Snakepit, at The Hole, New York City, 2019
  • Solo show, Where Do We Go From Here? at Christian Larsen Gallery, Stockholm, 2018
  • Solo show, Anthropocene, at Ruttkowski;68, Cologne, 2017
  • Group show, Swedish Art: Now! at the Sven-Harry Art Museum, Stockholm, 2016
  • Solo show, This Is The Shit That I Live 4, at KAZ Gallery, Västerås, 2014

His work contributes to an eclectic international resurgence of ceramics in contemporary art, from Grayson Perry to Yun Hee Lee, pulling traditional methods of clay and kiln into a contemporary aesthetic context. Drawing from DIY zine culture as well as iconic cartoons like Garfield and Futurama, a sense of play runs throughout Ojanen’s practice as he explores the peculiarities of the human condition.


Ojanen’s work is incredibly personal, yet reassuringly universal. His process relies on a solitary relationship between artist and material; in each pinch of clay, stroke of paint or 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 and holding a satchel. The work combines the dark colours and gangly limbs of a Giacometti with Ojanen’s trademark cartoonish figuration and the all-too-familiar posture of a tired, defeated child.

“All the time we still have the memories and experiences from all our previous years. I try to use that in my work”

The unavoidably endearing character envelopes the viewer, like an animation or cartoon, into the same reality as the boy. As such, Rough Day becomes an indirect self-portrait, tying a thread between Ojanen’s personal experience and our own.

“I think the characters I’m making are all my previous years—they are both 8 years old and 30 years old at the same time”

Ojanen undoes binary notions of adult and child. 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 those found on a soft toy, with melancholic postures and expressions, the characters become eerily ageless. This underscores Ojanen’s practice with an ominous humour that nods to 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 a result, Ojanen brings out the inner child within us, challenging his viewer not only to recall their own experiences, but also to recall those of others. Playful, odd and emotionally generous, Ojanen’s work is a fun and gentle reminder of the most powerful human trait: empathy.

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