Joakim Ojanen‘s sculptural cast of oddball characters captures feelings of childhood, adulthood and the awkward transformation in-between. Through semi-human and semi-monster ceramics and paintings, the Swedish artist crafts an ensemble of adolescent creatures whose juxtaposing compositions evoke nuanced and often conflicting emotions. His new NYC exhibit, The Part You Throw Away, sees the artist more personally than ever before. On view now through 31 December at The Hole, Ojanen’s work turns inward, in the vein of self-portraiture, to render childhood in playful and melancholic tones, mourning the loss of youth implied alongside it.
The exhibit, whose title is lifted from Tom Waits’ song of the same name, is comprised of two parts. In one room, darkness shrouds the ceramic pieces, lit only by individual spotlights, while an audio recording presents the crackling of glaze from when the pieces were taken out of the oven and the bubbling of water from when the sculptures were dipped. To enter the space is to emerge into Ojanen’s intimate and atmospheric world. “It’s almost as if you’re stepping into a different universe,” he tells us. In the other part of the exhibit, large-scale sculptures and wall pieces provide a contrast in size, especially compared with the artist’s portfolio where smaller works dominate. “My body reacts to the scale of the work that I’m looking at,” he continues. “Having a few big sculptures in the main space gives a different way to see them.”
Placing the sculptures in this dramatic, personal ambiance also heightens the emotional vulnerability of the artwork. Otherworldly combinations of pleading eyes, gangly limbs, dog ears and charming stocking caps imbue Ojanen’s coterie with a spectrum of feelings. Whether this conjures a world of backstories for each character or individual memories of quiet loneliness, longing or latent sadness, his unique cartoon aesthetic speaks to a universal human experience of growing up—a fundamental feeling that Ojanen describes as “the essence of being a human.” He elaborates, “You can’t go around being happy all the time, and you can’t go around being sad all the time. You’re always going to find this other thing that brings out the other feeling.” The artist’s work gives voice to that bittersweet state of flux.
Elsewhere, fluidity permeates the whole of the exhibit—from Ojanen’s ambiguously aged, gendered and not-really-human figures to the wash of emotions that overcomes a piece to the narrative-driven nature of the ceramics. As Donald Duck and Garfield act as early impressions of style, the artist’s work overflows with life, bolstered in part by Ojanen’s control of detail. In the piece “Wonder if she would like me still without fruits and bone?” for instance, the title opens doors to imagining the situations and moods of the figure, painting its upturned eyes, downturned mouth and nostalgic colors in a different light. The never-ending scenarios, personalities and feelings of the persona invite viewers to extrapolate, placing the sculpture along a moving timeline. By turning the static, frozen physicality of ceramics and 2D paintings into (emotionally and pensively) moving mediums, Ojanen displays his mastery over clay.
While occasionally working with bronze or plasticine, Ojanen has a clear affinity for ceramics. His foray into clay began in art school, when he and his friends took to an open studio, finding that the material was cheaper and sturdier option than others, and that something special happened when working with clay. “It’s all about finding the connection with the material,” Ojanen says, detailing his process. He doesn’t begin with a fully fledged idea. Rather, he lets the material guide him, thinking—as he tells us—”Where does the material want to take me? How can I find what they [the figures] want?” In retrospect, clay—a sticky, tactile substance similar to play dough—is an apt material for his adolescent-themed work. “When you dig your hands into clay, it comes so naturally because you’ve done that when you’re a child,” says Ojanen. “It’s a super-nice material to just dig your hands into. It’s like going to yoga.”
Just as the audience is prompted to reflect on their own childhood by these misfit characters, the artist himself journeys to the past when creating them. In fact, locating the work in adolescence allows Ojanen to sit with and process the complexity of those emotions more clearly. “It’s easy for me to jump back to when I was a child because I think those feelings are maybe more pure somehow. Like when I’m feeling sad, it freezes me back to when I was sad as a child. It has some kind of pureness to it,” he explains. Through his wacky characters, childhood has become a medium through which he (along with his many viewers) can grapple with feelings of youth and, subsequently, acceptance of adulthood. The artwork, he says, “has been very good in the sense that it helps me think of myself and what choices I made in life. It’s almost like going to a therapy session.” Perhaps that’s where the exhibit’s cathartic nature comes from.
Hero image of The Part You Throw Away installation view, photo by Arturo Sanchez courtesy of the artist and The Hole